The Best New Houston Restaurants of 2018
Every year Houston’s restaurant scene is different and 2018 was no exception. It was a year when dining quality in Houston’s suburbs really stepped up. These days, some of the best eateries in the Greater Houston area are in outlying or still-developing neighborhoods.
The out-of-town restaurant chain influx continues — and considering that Houston grew its culinary reputation based on unique, independent restaurants, that should be a concern. Bigger companies can afford higher rent than mom-and-pop startups and it’s getting harder for those small restaurants to secure space inside the 610 Loop. Look, it’s great that Houston now has its own Shake Shacks, Snoozes and Hopdoddys, but remember that the little guys need support, too. The holes-in-the-walls are in the suburbs because that’s what the owners can afford. Location is not a reflection on the food (and in the suburbs, it’s often cheaper).
As was the case in 2017, it’s again been a slow year for barbecue restaurant openings. Several promising newcomers are out there (Blood Bros. BBQ just swung open its doors in Bellaire, finally) but few made the transition from a trailer to brick and mortar. Willow’s Texas Barbecue and Buck’s Barbecue, for example, are still storefront-less. Truth BBQ, though, is also getting very close to opening and Victorian’s Barbecue is aiming for a late spring debut, so hopefully, there is going to be more to talk about in this category next year.
As is the tradition for this annual list, restaurants that opened between November 15 and December 31 are ineligible. These have just not been open long enough for the multiple visits needed for proper evaluation. (In fact, one of our top picks is a holdover that was too new to evaluate for last year’s list.) Also not considered were restaurants that are essentially a second location of the original, such as Jonathan’s the Rub.
The Houston Food Finder writers who contributed to this list (whether through writing or opinion) are Jamie Alvear, Josh Armendariz, Holly Beretto, Carlos Brandon, Phaedra Cook, Beth Levine and Scott Sandlin. The discussions started way back on September 25 and there was a whole lot of reshuffling and hand-wringing before we arrived at this final, ranked list.
B.B. Lemon, 1809 Washington: This new offering from steakhouse guru Benjamin Berg is just across the street from his steakhouse, B&B Butchers, but the tone is surprisingly different. It’s a homey, pleasant atmosphere evocative of a combination Irish pub and steakhouse (but a very different one from the much larger one across the street. Diners seeking an excellently executed cheeseburger sans the overwrought dressings and toppings may find their sandwich soulmate at B.B. Lemon. There’s a lot of comfort food that comes from the world’s playbook, such as the clam chowder served in a bread bowl and a pork schnitzel topped with spaetzle that wouldn’t be out of place at an Octoberfest feast. — Phaedra Cook, editor & publisher.
Kau Ba Kitchen, 2502 Dunlavy: After earning her street credentials in Vietnam, and being featured on both Netflix’s Ugly Delicious and Somebody Feed Phil, chef Nikki Tran opened her homage to Vietnamese-Cajun cuisine this past summer. The menu includes appetizers and salads like the Chef’s Special Dumplings, made with shrimp and pork and accompanied by a vinegar, sesame and chili sauce, and the Happy Salad with pineapple, Thai eggplant, mandarin, mint, lemongrass, stir-fried beef and sesame seeds topped with passion fruit dressing. Tran also serves variations of phở, including oxtail and red wine beef. To get the full experience of Tran’s personalized Viet-Cajun style, try the Pho Viejun and recent menu additions like Grandmas Subsidy and The French Invasion, a hearty meat and egg dish created by Tran and her restaurant partner. —Beth Levine, food writer and happy hour queen
Best New Houston Restaurants of 2018
10. Feges BBQ, 3 Greenway Plaza: The highly anticipated rollout of Feges BBQ, the collaborative effort of pitmaster Patrick Feges and classically trained chef Erin Smith Feges, happened this past March. The duo brings a complementary palette of skills and unique recipes to the weekday-only barbecue service in the Greenway Plaza food court. The peppery brisket at Feges is top notch, but it’s the pork that really stands out. Whether diners pick the St. Louis-cut spareribs, the pepper-crusted, sliced pork belly or the juicy pulled pork — gently flecked with red pepper flakes and sporting vinegary tang — they can’t go wrong. Furthermore, the side dishes and desserts, both cleverly concocted by chef Erin Feges, are unlike the typical beans/potato salad/coleslaw trio found in “typical” barbecue joints. Try the Moroccan-spiced carrots topped with a drizzle of yogurt sauce and chopped fresh mint or the crispy braised Brussels sprouts, with a funky punch and texture that meld perfectly with the wood-smoked meat offerings. Finish with a slice of the decadent PB+J Chocolate Cake or the exemplary banana cream tartlet sporting a salted caramel base, fresh banana slices, and whipped banana cream topping dusted with pastry crumble and crushed dried banana chips. — Scott Sandlin, barbecue columnist
9. Phat Eatery, 23119 Colonial Parkway: Over 40,000 persons of Asian descent live in Katy — and that number is projected to grow. Strangely, there have been few great restaurants representing that diverse segment of the population. Then, the Katy Asian Town center opened and that issue was quickly remedied. One of the first restaurants to debut was Phat Eatery, a hip Malaysian restaurant with bright and colorful signs lining the wall to evoke street food stands and a big one to define what “phat” means. It’s slang for “highly attractive and gratifying” and could easily apply to the food. Straight out of the gate, Phat Eatery is rolling out exemplary versions of classic Malaysian dishes like beef rendang, sizzling tofu and char kway teow with flat noodles, shrimp, calamari, sriracha, Chinese sausage, bean sprouts, egg and chives. The hot, flaky roti canai (a type of flatbread) is a must-have starter. Portions are on the bigger side, so the dishes are ideal for sharing family-style. — Phaedra Cook
8. SING, 718 West 18th: As a booming restaurant scene, The Heights hasn’t wanted for much, but there’s definitely been a dearth of well-made, authentic Asian fare. SING, a casual eatery just across the street from La Lucha, fills that longstanding gap. Cuc Lam, who got established in Houston thanks to hosting pop-up dinners at bars and in her own home, found support from Jerry Lasco of Lasco Enterprises in opening this Singaporean restaurant. It was a smart country from which to take inspiration, because Singapore is a melting pot of many different cuisines. That means SING has a no-holds-barred menu of savory delights from Thailand, Vietnam, China, India and Malaysia. These include fragrant Bak Kut Teh, an herbal soup with pork ribs, chicken tikka masala and laksa, a curry and coconut milk soup with noodles, shrimp, chicken and fried tofu. SING faces 18th rather than the main drag, Shepherd, but for goodness sakes, make that turn and try a few things. — Phaedra Cook
7. La Lucha, 1801 North Shepherd: This restaurant from former Houstonian and James Beard Award-nominated restaurateur and chef Ford Fry is unpretentious, innovative and just plain fun. This isn’t a third or fourth location of a Fry concept: it’s the first and it is authentically Houston. (It’s probably a good thing Fry grew up here, because a plethora of out-of-town chefs have come and gone without being able to nail how to capture the city’s culinary spirit.) La Lucha is an homage to divey Gulf Coast cuisine inspired by the old San Jacinto Inn (now Monument Inn) near the San Jacinto Monument and battleground site. As far as dishes go, it’s hard to say what diners love more: the unique, thick-crusted fried chicken tossed in extra seasoning or the tender biscuits that come alongside. (Pro tip: add fried shrimp.) Other delights include the “oyster loaf” (it’s a fried oyster sandwich on standard white bread), crispy shrimp tacos that don’t seem embarrassed at all to sport a slice of lowbrow American cheese and the silly-but-endearing caviar on top of onion dip alongside a can of Pringles. La Lucha is a great place to dine with a group and the cocktails — such as the You’re Welcome with bourbon, rye, two vermouths and bitters — ain’t half bad, either. — Phaedra Cook
6. (tie) Shun, 2802 South Shepherd and Tobiuo, 23501 Cinco Ranch, Katy: For as vast as Houston is, until recently there’s been a curious lack of high-quality Japanese restaurants. Ask diners and the ones they’re most likely to cite are Kata Robata, KUU and maybe MF Sushi. Fortunately, when Roka Akor opened in 2017, it was a harbinger that even more top Japanese restaurants were close behind. In 2018, the newest worthy arrivals are Shun in Montrose and Tobiuo in Katy. Both restaurants are, in a sense, descendants of others. Shun’s Naoki Yoshida is a second-generation Japanese-American who worked at his family’s sushi restaurant, Nippon, starting when he was only 15. Tobiuo’s executive chef Mike Lim’s résumé includes Roka Akor and Morimoto (yes, that Morimoto) in Napa.
Shun leans more toward the izakaya side but that doesn’t mean that it does not have an exquisite sushi program. It is a crossroads of refined authenticity and modern innovation. Hand-pressed nigiri such as the toro (fatty tuna), sake toro (salmon belly) and saba (pickled mackerel) are traditionally prepared, yet reflect chef Naoki’s personal style and creativity. The mackerel features a thin slice of seaweed marinated in sugar and vinegar, complementing the tender pickled fish with just a hint of sweetness. Executive chef Nick Hill, formerly of Triniti, adds other highlights in the way of cooked dishes with nods to other cuisines such as carnitas gyoza (fried pork dumplings). Shun also features a big collection of saké, as well as Japanese whisky and a dessert menu of boozy sweets for putting a lavish cap on a perfect meal.
Meanwhile in Katy, Lim and his staff at Tobiuo is also executing dishes with such breathtaking artistry that it seems insultingly simplistic to call these just “sushi” or “sashimi.” These start with palettes of impeccable serving ware from Blue Door Ceramics. Pristine cuts of fish, such as salmon belly, bluefin tuna and scallops — raw or seared — are placed strategically and adorned with edible flowers and only the seasonings that make sense. Take, for example, how Lim gives salmon belly gentle cool-weather accents thanks to a restrained dose of hibiscus sea salt and pomegranate vinaigrette. That said, those who eschew raw fish are going to be quite satisfied with the shrimp tempura, luxurious seared Wagyu and galbi (Korean-style grilled ribs) as well as the artful yet approachable desserts, such as lychee ice cream accompanied by fresh berries and macarons. — Carlos Brandon and Phaedra Cook
5. TRIBUTE at The Houstonian, 111 North Post Oak Lane: This past October, The Houstonian Hotel, Club & Spa unveiled its new restaurant, TRIBUTE. Longtime Houston chef Neal Cox, who earned his experience at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, Trevisio and Américas, developed a Texas-centric menu influenced by neighboring regions in Louisiana and Mexico. Cox’s aptly named Tex-Lex cuisine includes fresh Gulf Coast oysters cooked on a wood-burning grill, redfish on the half shell, braised cabrito, smoked Wagyu beef ribs and rib eye steaks. Other stellar offerings include the hearty Duck and Dirty Rice and the Parisa, a unique beef tartare closely associated with Medina County. On the beverage side of the menu, sommelier Vanessa Trevino-Boyd (formerly known for her work at Philippe and the Houston Country Club) curated a beverage program intended to appease a variety of palates, drawing “inspiration from Houston itself with a little something for everyone, from new trends to the tried and true.” The current program includes Bordeaux Crus Bourgeois wines and a cocktail list that makes good use of the collection of 25 rye whiskeys. — Beth Levine
4. Indianola, 1201 Saint Emmanuel: The much anticipated new restaurant from Ryan Pera, Morgan Weber and Vincent Hunyh of Agricole Hospitality opened this past November. Indianola‘s menu, overseen by executive chef Paul Lewis, incorporates influences from all over the world resulting in hit menu items like the Hoja Santa Goat Cheese with Persian cucumbers, radish, toasted rice, and chili agua fresca; housemade sourdough bread; Panzanella salad with charred sourdough, French feta, cucumber, tomato, olives, endive and bacon vinaigrette; larger plates like the Ricotta Gnudi with blistered tomatoes, mushrooms, vegetable brodo and breadcrumbs; and a shareable 60-ounce Strube Ranch bone-in Wagyu ribeye. The beverage program run by Marie-Louise Friedland (formerly of State Bird Provisions and The Progress), offers diners a curated wine list and a wide array of classic craft cocktails like the goblet seved gin and tonic and the R&R Negroni, alongside innovative cocktails like the South American Handshake made with Pisco, bourbon, absinthe, preserved watermelon falernum, mint and lime. Now open for lunch as well as dinner, the only downside to Indianola might be the lack of parking. The street parking options in the area are plagued by road work and valet lot across the street will run you $10 per vehicle. Our best suggestion is to either cough up dough for the valet or better still, take an Uber and make a night of it in EaDo. A strategy makes a nightcap (or two) at the wonderful adjacent cocktail bar, Miss Carousel, a very tempting option. — Beth Levine & Phaedra Cook
3. UB Preserv, 1609 Westheimer: After closing Underbelly in March, James Beard Award-winning chef Chris Shepherd opened UB Preserv a few months later. With a curated, multi-cultural menu, Shepherd, along with chef de cuisine Nick Wong (formerly of Momofuku Ssam Bar in New York) and Anvil alum Westin Galleymore, created a brand-new, Asian-inspired dining experience. Standouts on the current dinner menu include the Crispy Rice Salad, the pork dumplings and the duck egg curry with and reasonably priced four course Tour of Houston tasting menu. On Sundays, those in the mood for brunch can enjoy a dim sum-style menu divided into small, medium and large sections. Can’t-miss items include Japanese pancakes and stuffed cabbage rolls with spicy tomato sauce. On the cocktail side, Galleymore created nine signature cocktails like the Adult Entertainer, a dry gin and passion fruit cocktail with hints of lime and vanilla and served with a sidecar of rosé, and the potent Stagg’s Tail made with blended scotch, lime, aquavit and allspice. For group dining, try ordering one of the tiki bowls on the drink menu, such as the Wild Man of Navidad — which is set aflame tableside. — Beth Levine
2. Nancy’s Hustle, 2704 Polk: Industry insiders and Houston foodies started touting the praises of Nancy’s Hustle ever since executive chef Jason Vaughn and beverage master Sean Jensen (formerly of Shade, The Hay Merchant and Public Services Wine & Whisky) opened it. Vaughn returned to Houston after an acclaimed stint in Chicago — and he’s an incredibly valuable addition to the restaurant scene. Nancy’s Hustle is a regular haunt for some of the Houston Food Finder writers (thanks not just to the exemplary food, cocktails and wine list, but for some really practical reasons, like — *gasp* — an actual parking lot!). The food and environment is comfortable in a way that’s hard to define. Both are more refined than a “diner” but Nancy’s Hustle is comforting like one.
It’s even hit the national radar. Esquire named it one of the 20 best new restaurants in America. The Nancy Cakes served with whipped butter and smoked trout roe and pastry chef Julia Doran’s beautiful dessert offerings, such as profiteroles stuffed with labneh ice cream, blackberry sauce, and pistachios, invariably become fan favorites. What’s perhaps most fun, though, are the new dishes that crop up seasonally alongside the perpetual favorites, such as hand-cut spaghetti made of housemade pasta with fermented chili butter, crab, parmesan, and breadcrumbs. — Phaedra Cook & Beth Levine
1. TRIS, 24 Waterway Avenue, The Woodlands: Sometimes, the best thing for restaurateurs to do when something’s not quite working is to start over from scratch. The former Hubbell & Hudson Bistro under executive chef Austin Simmons was carrying around the dead weight of a name shared with a long-closed gourmet grocery store to which the restaurant used to be attached. The right answer was to shut it down, do a bit of remodeling, come up with a new menu and reemerge as TRIS.
TRIS is the culmination of the experience Simmons gained since 2009, when he persistently asked James Beard Award-winning chef Dean Fearing for a job at the multiple-time, five-star rated Mansion On Turtle Creek in Dallas — and eventually got it. He came to The Woodlands in 2011 to work with executive chef John Tesar. Tesar is now at Knife in Dallas but fortunately, The Woodlands got to keep Simmons. When Knife closed, Simmons walked down the street to Hubbell & Hudson for the job and the kitchen he’d make his own.
TRIS is also the product of the theater-like dining room near the kitchen, Cureight. It’s been a showcase for Simmons’ most ambitious dishes since 2015. Cureight was retained after Hubbell & Hudson Bistro was scrapped, and the beauty and exacting execution of those dishes filtered into TRIS’s beautiful yet entirely approachable menu. The term “something for everyone” is tossed around often but in this case, there really is. Simmons’ aged beef program is exemplary, so even the most un-foodie diner is going to love it. A selection for vegans is the avocado tart with vegan cashew cheese, piquillo pepper, lemon pepper, pistachio, and pickled mustard seed in puff pastry. Chocolate fanatics are going to discover the silky, ganache-covered cake. Those dishes are a mere smattering of those that deserve further discussion.
Frankly, if TRIS was located inside Houston’s 610 Loop, diners would be just as breathless about it — and it would have the same amount of publicity — as other top restaurants in the city. As it is, TRIS is in The Woodlands. For Houstonians who are loathe to drive outside the Loop, it may as well be in Arkansas.
Consider a road trip, then, because it’s just a big shame to miss out on the work of one of the best chefs in the Greater Houston area. — Phaedra Cook
12/23/16, 10:00 a.m.: Editor’s note: Article corrected to reflect that Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas is a five-star rated hotel, not a Michelin-starred hotel. The Michelin Guide has never covered Texas restaurants.
Disclosure: The Houstonian and Phat Eatery are recent or current Houston Food Finder sponsors.
Phaedra Cook has written about Houston’s restaurant and bar scene since 2010. She was a regular contributor to My Table magazine (now closed) and was the lead restaurant critic for the Houston Press for two years, eventually being promoted to food editor. Cook founded Houston Food Finder in November 2016 and has been its editor and publisher ever since.