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The Best New Houston Restaurants of 2019

Blue Crab Fingers at One Fifth Gulf Coast


Blue Crab Fingers with caramelized fish sauce and jalapeño at One Fifth Gulf Coast. Photo by Phaedra Cook.

Posted: December 17, 2019 at 7:00 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

A truism: the better the food year, the harder it is to whittle down and rank our annual Best New Restaurants list. 2019 was one of the best in recent memory. This year, many essential and long-anticipated factors came together to produce excellent results, and by that we mean a number of worthy new dishes, drinks and overall dining experiences. Top Houston professionals, who have worked on their respective crafts for many years, finally opened their dream restaurants. Restaurant spaces that had been home to the wrong concepts finally got the right ones. Damaged locations were revitalized. Houston’s passionate diners fell hard and fast for some of these new restaurants, and some have already collected national accolades.

In addition to sorting and applying context to this embarrassment of riches, 2019 also challenged us to consider some philosophical questions, such as, “What is a restaurant?” Is a food hall, often a collection of food stalls, considered as one place or many? What if a well-respected and talented chef serves many different menus from a single kitchen and calls it a “virtual food hall”? Maybe it’s not a restaurant, but consider this a nod to chef Gabriel Medina’s Click Robot Run, which serves  excellent and diverse dishes from his Heights-area kitchen for delivery or pickup.

Ultimately, what separates the top five in our list is — well, very little. If you’d like to swap numbers 1 and 2, or 1 and 5 for that matter, please feel free. If we had devised a formula for creating a numeric ranking, the differences would come down to tenths of a percentage point. Really, it’s a question of uniqueness, quality, comfort, consistency and, of course, personal taste.

As always, our Best New Restaurants list is a team effort. Multiple writers visited various locations. For months now, we’ve nominated and argued for our favorites, shared our opinions and our personal experiences. Then this year’s writers — editor and publisher Phaedra Cook, associate editor David Leftwich and monthly Hit List writer Beth Levine — compiled and distilled those discussions into this year’s list.

Regardless of the rankings, the real winners this year were Houston’s diners.

Honorable Mention

Olivas Esférificadas at MAD

Olivas Esférificadas, a culinary magic trick at MAD where cocoa butter is shaped into believable olives look alikes and filled with olive juice. Photo by Phaedra Cook.

MAD, 4444 Westheimer: This spin-off of BCN Taste & Tradition, which takes inspiration from Barcelona and Madrid’s trippy modern club culture. Located in the upscale River Oaks District, it’s definitely a place to be seen — and a place to see. “Fabulous” is not too strong of a word to describe MAD, and if we gave awards for Best Interior Design, it would be the hands-down winner. The platings, and even the plates, are also quite artful, including the Chicharrón Marino, a huge pork skin dyed black with squid ink, fried into a veritable cloud and adorned like a coral reef.

Due to rather precious prices and portions, MAD risks being a restaurant where you spend your dinner budget and then wonder where you’re going to go eat. For an initial how-do-you-do, try sitting at the bar and ordering a cocktail and some small bites, then you can decide whether you want to commit to a full-blown meal. Besides the stunning and aforementioned Chicharrón Marino, some other masterful options are the Nidos (poached quail eggs sprinkled with truffle power and set atop Jamón Ibérico de Bellota and a potato nest), and, for something more substantial, try the pulpo (octopus tendrils), which comes in both 14- and 30-ounce portions. By the way, don’t neglect to visit the bathrooms. Yes, really. — Phaedra Cook

Best New Houston Restaurants of 2019

bistec costra at La Vibra

The bistec costra at La Vibra. Photo by Phaedra Cook.

10. La Vibra, 506 Yale: This isn’t your average taqueria. Located in a new, yet modest strip center, La Vibra’s Mexico City-inspired offerings are elegant and well-executed. The costras — a generous layer of slightly smokey gouda griddled into a chocolate-brown “tortilla”, then wrapped around one of several filling choices, including bistec, shrimp or rajas (roasted poblano strips) —  is a game-changer for Houston. Be sure to add one the complimentary housemade salsas. The tangy tamarind salsa serves as a zippy counterpoint especially for the smoky rajas. La Vibra also offers classic tacos on housemade corn tortillas (try the pastor, which is cooked on an actual trompo that is delectably rotating in the open kitchen) and volcán-style tacos — your choice of topping and melted Oaxaca cheese on a toasted corn tortilla that resembles a wavy tostada. Don’t forget to order a side of nopales and an agua fresca.— David Leftwich & Phaedra Cook

nigiri at kokoro

Hamachi and mackrel nigiri at Kokoro in Bravery Chef Hall. Photo by Phaedra Cook.

9. Bravery Chef Hall, 409 Travis: Many food halls across the country focus on filling their stalls with local food businesses. In Houston, though, Bravery Chef Hall partners Lian Nguyen, Shepard Ross and Anh Mai took that up a notch, determined to fill each of theirs with a well-respected local chef. That makes this “choose-your-own-adventure” dining experience even more fun. Stop by chef Ben McPherson’s BOH Pasta & Pizza for a taste of Roman-style pizza or the pastas that other Houston chefs are sourcing for their own menus. Maybe bounce over to MasterChef winner Christine Ha’s Blind Goat for her stand’s signature dish, G.O.A.T. Curry. In the mood for a steak? Head to Cherry Block Butcher for a reasonably priced center-cut ribeye from Black Hill Meats. Or try their decadent burger and fries. Of all the stands, the one that has received the most buzz so far is Kokoro, Patrick Pham and Daniel Lee’s adventurous, modern take on Japanese cuisine. They’ve already used it as a launching pad for their next endeavor, Handies Douzo. (Note that chef Richard Knight has left Atlas Diner, and it’s not clear what’s next for that location.) In addition to the quality food, quality drinks are readily available  from a wonderful wine bar that is well stocked by Ross and the snazzy, glassed-walled LockWood STN where David Cendeño, aka. David Daquiri, is concocting a short list of imaginative cocktails. — Phaedra Cook

A selection of meats and sides at Brett's Barbecue Place

A selection of meats and sides at Brett’s Barbecue Place. Photo by Ben Sassani.

8. Brett’s BBQ Shop, 606 South Mason, Katy: Vinyl, like barbecue, is at the peak of a years-long revival. It makes you wish you hadn’t let your albums warp in your mother’s attic because replacing that copy of “Led Zeppelin II” may now cost as much as a good steak. However, sometimes as you flip through the bins of records you find a pared-down roots classic such as Townes Van Zandt’s “For The Sake of The Song” for only the price of a really good burger. That’s what it feels like walking into Brett’s BBQ Shop, a shotgun space wedged between a tire shop and a tailor in Katy.

Once through the door, you’re greeted by the wafting scent of wood smoke and a bare-bones, corrugated tin-and-wood counter topped with a classic chalkboard menu, listing a handful of meats, sides, and daily specials. The archetypal décor is not just for show. Brett’s is serving some of the area’s best renditions of central Texas barbecue. The fork-tender brisket, some of the best I ate this year, balances the smokiness with salt and pepper slow-cooked into a bark that crackles with flavor. The beef sausage and pork ribs are worthy options to round out a two- or three-meat plate. Plus, $13.50 for of a two-meat plate is one the area’s best barbecue values. That along with an unvarnished selection of classics is becoming less common at Texas’s by-the-pound craft barbecue joints. At Brett’s though, traditional smoked meats at reasonable prices is the name of the game. Definitely add it to your smoked-meat rotation. — David Leftwich

Chicken momos at Momo House

Chicken chili momo at Momo House. Photo by Phaedra Cook.

7. Momo House, 6121 Hillcroft: Great restaurants do not have to be expensive, because ultimately, it’s all about the food. We would travel to Momo House, a new Nepalese restaurant just south of 59 on Hillcroft, just for the potatoes — especially the piro aloo: spuds that have been boiled then sautéed in Nepali spices, butter, onions and tomatoes until the outside is perfectly crisped and poignantly spicy. That aside, this new eatery, tucked into a strip center like so many unexpectedly great Houston restaurants, offers much more than potatoes.

The backbone of the menu is several different preparations of vegetable and chicken momos, which are Nepali dumplings with wheat flour wrappers. The pillows of goodness are stuffed with simple yet flavorful fillings. While these can be ordered steamed or fried, we recommend trying one of the more intricate dishes like the chicken chili momo: chicken dumplings fried and coated with a spicy tomato sauce until the outside is a cathartic layer of piquant crispiness. It is one of the best dishes we had this year. For something more delicate and comforting, try the vegetable soup momo: tofu dumplings with hints of ginger and galangal floating in a nuanced broth. As good as the momos are, don’t miss the rest of the menu, in particular the goat dishes: goat sekuwa, chargrilled hunks of marinated goat meat, and bhutan: flavorful, stir-fried goat offal that tastes less intimidating than it sounds. On our most recent visit, our server promised that the menu is being expanded. We’re glad to hear it because we can’t wait to return. — David Leftwich & Phaedra Cook

The roasted oysters at Elliot’s Table. Photo by Elliot Roddy.

6. Elliot’s Table, 465 T.C. Jester: This restaurant opened at the end of 2018 and missed the cutoff date for last year’s Best New Restaurant List. We are glad to now give it proper recognition. Those who loved Randy Rucker’s Bramble or Bootsie’s will sense the spirits of those restaurants at chef Elliot Roddy’s establishment. His experience cooking with Rucker and adoption of similar food sensibilities (and, sometimes, excesses) shines through this unique take on multiculturally influenced Southern fare.

With roughly 30 seats and a small covered patio, the space has a cozy, family vibe that is perfect for enjoying must-haves shareables such as Roasted Oysters with herb butter, bacon-charred citrus and cheese; and Thai Chili Ribs: St. Louis pork ribs served with mushrooms and crispy wontons. The larger entrées are ridiculously generous. The chicken fried steak is served on a wooden cutting board with not one, but TWO crispy, meaty sensations. The seafood pasta, with bucatini from chef Ben McPherson at Bravery Food Hall, is another compelling dish sauced with a blend of seafood stock and housemade alfredo. For date night, try the Butcher’s Cut for 2 with 44 Farms Ribeye, seasonal fresh vegetables, housemade mac & cheese and fries. From the bar, Elliot’s offers a list of about 20 wines by the glass, a larger selection of bottles and a few hard-to-find beers alongside familiar local drafts. — Beth Levine & Phaedra Cook

Uni Pasta at 1751 Sea & Ba

Uni Pasta at 1751 Sea & Bar. Photo by Phaedra Cook.

5. 1751 Sea & Bar, 191 Heights: Is there anything better than drinkin’ and snackin’ — and is there any place better to do it in style than 1751 Sea & Bar? Yes, diners can head straight for one of the many worthy seafood entrées, including Redfish on the “half shell (roasted skin on) and Panéed Flounder with mirliton (chayote squash), shallot, oven-dried tomatoes, smoked pan sauce and chilies. The thing is, executive chef J.D. Woodward’s has so many seafood delights that it would be an utter tragedy to just pick one.

So, start with small plates, such as the daily raw oyster selection (only $1 each during the new happy hour), the unmissable, luxurious Uni Pasta or possibly the even more decadent A-5 Mayizaki Wagyu with potato pave and shoyu tamago. Bring friends to help polish off the very interesting 1751 Seafood “Charcuterie” Board, which includes salmon gravlax, cured tuna, market conserva, smoked oysters, boquerones, pickles, mostarda and toasty bread.

Cocktails are a must, and the list under beverage director David Maness is beautifully served. The F.D.M., 1751’s take on a dirty martini (don’t ask about the “F”) with either vodka or gin, olive brine and garnished with blue cheese-stuffed Castelvetrano olives, is a full glass with a crystal “sidecar” of extra nestled in ice. Dash in during the cold weather for G & Tea Time: Bombay Sapphire East gin, Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, island tonic and citrus ginger tea, served in a generously sized china cup. It’ll cure what ails ya.

Truth be told, on our last visit, our group of four made a meal of happy hour dishes (for now, it’s even available in the dining room between 4 and 6 p.m.), small plates and the seafood board, and could not have left happier. — Phaedra Cook

jambalaya at One Fifth Gulf Coast

The jambalaya “for two” at One Fifth Gulf Coast. Photo by Phaedra Cook.

 

4. One Fifth Gulf Coast, 1658 Westheimer: This incarnation of One Fifth, the fourth of five, is the most soulful and genuine yet and the most successful since the first, One Fifth Steak. Chris Shepherd’s vision, as executed by chef de cuisine Matt Staph and sous chef Hayden Hulings, evokes the memory of Underbelly with a distinct Cajun-Creole twist and plenty of nods to the Vietnamese fishermen who made their homes on the Gulf Coast. The dishes are grounded, generous, incredibly satisfying and yet still communicate that Gulf Coast seafood can be really luxurious.

The show-stopping dish is the humble Smoked Pork, Chicken and Shrimp Jambalaya. It says it’s “for two.” Ignore that unless you’re an athlete who hasn’t eaten for two days. Our party of three ate our fill and each took some home for reliving the glorious, spice-laden experience. This year’s most fun dish is the Gas Station Snacks, a rotating menu of crunchy delights such as boudin balls or duck confit poppers (so rich that it was like eating deep-fried pâté — and I still ate every single one by myself). For something lighter and smaller, yet no less flavorful, aim for the Blue Crab Fingers with jalapeño and fish sauce caramel or the New Orleans-Style Barbecue Shrimp with its delightfully tangy dipping sauce. — Phaedra Cook

Smoked Turkey Bánh Mì at Blood Bros. BBQ

Smoked Turkey Bánh Mì at Blood Bros. BBQ. Photo by Phaedra Cook.

3. Blood Bros. BBQ, 5425 Bellaire: The history of Houston is a story of confluences. A muddy scrap of dwellings built where the Buffalo and White Oak bayous meet has expanded to a metropolitan landscape where many cultures and cuisines rub shoulders. In few places is this more evident than in Alief, where siblings and Blood Brothers co-owners Robin and Terry Wong and their partner and brother-in-smoke Quy Hoang — the first Vietnamese-American pitmaster in Houston — grew up.

Their collaboration, Blood Bros. BBQ, evolved from backyard cookouts and pop-ups and is serving some of Houston’s most innovative food: Texas barbecue viewed through Chinese, Vietnamese and Southeast Asian culinary lenses — a focus that has catalyzed into dishes such as Brisket Fried Rice, Smoked Turkey Bánh Mì, Brisket Burnt End Steam Buns and Thai Green Curry Boudin. The trio has also looked to other cuisines for inspiration, resulting in unique creations, such as Reuben Sausage stuffed with housemade sauerkraut and Swiss cheese, a decadent smoked prime beef sandwich with grilled onion and buttery Texas toast and pork belly burnt ends with peach-habanero-bourbon glaze. That said, diners who are just looking for the Texas trinity will discover some mighty fine traditional brisket, ribs and sausage. — David Leftwich

Rigatoni Di Mancini at Rosie Cannonball. Photo by Phaedra Cook.

2. Rosie Cannonball, 1620 Westheimer: Watching sommelier David Keck and chef Felipe Riccio grow their careers since their days at wine bar Camerata has been downright inspiring. Riccio left Houston for a year-and-a-half to study cuisine in Italy while Keck accomplished the very difficult feat of landing his Master Sommelier title, issued by the Court of Master Sommeliers. Joined by another master sommelier, June Rodil, their labors have come to fruition in Rosie Cannonball (and, peripherally, in Montrose Cheese & Wine next door as well as clean-cut Montrose honky tonk Goodnight Charlie’s). Set against an nearly monochromatic backdrop with cacti accents, the space is warm and inviting and works for both casual and fancy nights out. Open for lunch and dinner, Rosie offers an Italian-influenced menu with many temptations, including Focaccia Di Recco, a delicate and perfectly warmed flat bread stuffed with mortadella and robiola cheese and Lambrusco Meatballs with creamy Barton Springs Mill polenta.

There are also thoughtful, vegetarian-friendly dishes, such as the Blistered Green Bean Salad with pea shoots, shallots, sweet peppers, olives and candied nuts and the uniquely prepared Charred Brassica. The wood-fired pizzas are a big hit, with our favorite being the Lira Rossa Three Cheese pizza (with pepperoni added). Also from the fire comes the Basque-Style Bream with charred pil-pil sauce, marinated citrus and pennyroyal. Behind the bar, a cast of skilled drink pros create cocktails such as Rosie’s Negroni and the Cannonball Gin & Tonic, as well as originals like the Glass Cannon with bourbon, vermouth, apricot liqueur and absinthe, served up.  The wine list offers over 25 selections by the glass and there are also select Italian and local craft beers. — Beth Levine & Phaedra Cook

Dutch Baby at Squable

Baker Drew Gimma’s Dutch Baby is one of the dishes at Squable intended to showcase the breads, which are often treated by restaurant owners as afterthoughts. Photo by Jenn Duncan.

1. Squable, 632 West 19th: It was incredibly sad to lose Southern Goods to a fire, but at least the building is once again home to an exceptional restaurant. Bobby Heugel and Justin Yu are responsible for opening some groundbreaking Houston restaurants and bars, but Squable was for giving their protégés a place to shine. Chef Mark Clayton and baker Drew Gimma worked for Yu at Theodore Rex, while general manager Terry Williams earned his reputation at Heugel’s Anvil Bar & Refuge and Better Luck Tomorrow, the latter owned by both Heugel and Yu. Initially, we were concerned that Squable was going to be “Theodore Rex Marries Anvil,” mainly because Yu has developed a recognizable, influential culinary style, and the same goes for Heugel’s approach to cocktails. Once it settled in, though, Squable quickly developed its own warm and unique persona. The menu is so flexible that diners can simply enjoy a burger smothered in raclette at the polished-brass bar or secure a reservation for a sophisticated, multi-course date night or meal with friends.

Almost every Saturday, you’ll find Clayton at a farmers market sourcing local ingredients for the menu, which ranges from smaller dishes — several of which make a wonderful meal — to larger entrées. The rich yet tender butter-roasted winter squash accented with sparks of vadouvan (a French curry powder) and smoked-cashew cream will satisfy not only vegetarians but most omnivores. Hunks of baked sweet potato are reinvigorated with umami-rich black garlic and unctuous bits of pork. Though you could easily fill up on the vegetables, don’t miss Clayton’s pastas — such as the decadent sheets of maltagliati bathed in butter-braised onions and Parmesan — or Gimma’s stunning bread creations, such as the pillowy Dutch Baby Pancake topped with country ham, creamy burrata and fig jam. The Marinated Mussels and Calico Beans on grilled housemade bread leverages the talents of both chefs, resulting in a surprisingly rich creation that marries the earthy tones of humble beans and toast with wisps of sea air — a very different take on surf and turf. These dishes, along with both raw and roasted oysters, additional seasonal vegetable dishes and entrées such as poached snapper and crispy-skinned heritage pork, make Squable worthy of many return trips.— Phaedra Cook & David Leftwich

Congratulations to all of the Best New Houston Restaurants of 2019!


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