The Best New Houston Restaurants of 2022
As we sifted through the many restaurants that opened this year, we were reminded of how lucky we are to eat in Houston — a city that offers a diverse range of dining experiences from adventurous omakases and thoughtful Mexican tasting menus to fast-casual burger joints and laidback Vietnamese bistros. However, the sheer number of new restaurants that opened — facilitated by the loosening of supply-chain bottlenecks — made it more difficult than usual to winnow down the list to those we think are the best new restaurants of 2022.
As we reviewed this plethora of new eateries, we noticed a distinctive shift from 2021. Last year, expensive tasting-menu restaurants were back in vogue, bolstered by diners starving for post-lockdown culinary adventures. This year, the majority of new restaurants offered unique dishes in upscale-casual environments at fairly reasonable prices, possibly a reflection of diners seeking comforting meals during a time of economic uncertainties.
As always, we used a team approach — but our process this time was more rigorous. In most cases, writers pitched their favorites, but a different writer, using a dining stipend, revisited. (We are rarely able to offer stipends due to our tight budgets, and that’s one more reason we encourage businesses and readers to support our work, so we can do it more often.)
We then compared notes. One of the biggest restaurant challenges is providing consistent experiences, and our process meant sending a writer who wouldn’t likely be recognized. It was disheartening to see several eateries eliminated from consideration due to significant issues during the follow-up visits. On the other hand, one restaurant that received a lukewarm “First Bite” evaluation proved that all establishments deserve a chance to settle in and improve. Some restaurants roar out of the gate on all cylinders; others need some time.
In order to be eligible, restaurants had to open between December 1, 2021 and November 30, 2022. A few restaurants that opened in November made our Honorable Mentions list. These are off to a great start and are technically eligible, but we didn’t think we made enough visits to declare them as “Best New.” Still, we hope you will check them out.
Finally, there are two that opened too early and one that changed its approach late in the year that we’d like to point out.
- Quiote opened for just six weeks during 2020 before being forced to close (you know the reason by now). It reopened this year. This little restaurant hidden inside of The Toasted Coconut is a wonderful spot for a romantic dinner.
- Chef David Guerrero closed his east-of-downtown restaurant, Andes Café, and reopened it as an eatery at POST Market in November 2021. Now offering a coursed ceviche tasting, we think it found its footing — and, hopefully, its following — this year.
- Café Louie was strongly considered for this year’s list. Unfortunately, the original concept didn’t connect with enough diners, so the owners closed briefly and reopened it as Louie’s Italian American a couple of weeks ago. Assuming the red-sauce inspired menu takes off, we’ll consider it again next year.
Now, on with the list of the Best New Houston Restaurants of 2022!
GJ Tavern, 737 Preston: This downtown gastropub, part of the Underbelly Hospitality restaurant group, opened in July 2021, but sweeping changes in early 2022 — including a new name, chef and menu — means that it may as well be considered a new concept. Chef Tim Reading replaced Nick Wong in April at what was formerly Georgia James Tavern, and while we eagerly hope the latter finds a brick-and-mortar Houston restaurant again, Reading has proven an ideal fit.
Earnestness and enthusiasm can’t get you everywhere, but it’s a good way to start. Culinary Institute of America graduate and Caracol alum Reading sings his way to work (keep an eye out for his Instagram stories), then puts his best foot (or plate) forward daily. Our favorites include Pumpkin Cavatelli with shaved butternut squash, pecans and a generous dusting of pecorino; the hunky Ham Brined Pork Chop and Crispy Duck Fat Potatoes with chile, lemon zest and a dollop of asparagus aioli. Especially convenient for theater-goers, GJ Tavern offers a fresh take on gourmet American fare. — Phaedra Cook, editor and publisher
Karne, 2805 White Oak: It took over three years for Jason Cho and executive chef and partner Yurum “KP ” Nam to bring their vision of fine Korean cuisine to life. The new steakhouse in the Heights takes hearty, comforting and robust food to an elevated level. At Karne, Korean barbecue is a full-service experience offering à la carte meats that include American or Japanese Wagyu and prime, marinated or smoked beef. Everything comes with the requisite array of banchan. You’ll also find spins on classic dishes such as Wagyu Kimchi Fried Rice and ribeye hotpot. For something a little more decadent, try the “Ocean Treasures” options that include jumbo shrimp, a hot-and-cold seafood tower and caviar.
The wine list spans the globe, and the signature cocktails are fun, innovative and incorporate Asian flavors. If you want true fine dining and indulgence, make a reservation to experience the chef’s multi-course tasting menu. Karne opened in early November, and we wanted another visit or two to properly evaluate it, but it’s already proving that it’s a great addition to the Heights. We can’t wait to experience more of it in the coming year. — Minh T. Truong, food and beverage writer
Zanti Cucina Italiana, 1958 West Gray: This glamorous River Oaks Italian restaurant — the second location of the original in The Woodlands — opened November 5. Although we’ve only had one visit, it is already providing nearly flawless experiences. The menu at the Houston location is expansive and fashionable, with several dishes, such as the branzino baked in sea salt, prepared tableside. Zanti’s design complements the food, making it even more appetizing. Guests are even able to view the stations where the pizza is made and the charcuterie is sliced.
My personal favorite of the visit was the rigatoni all’amatriciana, made with thick cuts of tender guanciale, pomodoro sauce, pepperoncino and Parmigiano Reggiano. The pasta is made in-house and provides substantial but welcome chewiness to the spicy dish. Zanti also has a well-thought-out bar program, as well as several desserts, with one of the more fun options being a tiramisu prepared in a moka pot, a traditional Italian stovetop coffee maker. — Ryan Baker, food and beverage writer
The Best New Restaurants of 2022
5Kinokawa, 3119 White Oak: When you enter this cozy-yet-well-appointed Heights restaurant, get ready for an adventure. 5Kinokawa only serves omakase, and chef and owner Billy Kin is determined to broaden your culinary horizons with showman-like flair. Squeamish diners ought to sit this one out — our first course featured a tiny fried crab and two of its live brethren in a wine glass observing the proceedings. But those who treat eating as an adventure are going to have a blast.
While the first few courses seemed aimed to break perceptual barriers, later courses appeal to those seeking carnal decadence. Courses shift to savory treats such as hand-seared otoro nigiri, glossy with natural fattiness, scallops sliced thin enough to be translucent and adorned in edible flowers and truffle shavings, chawanmushi accented with gold-flecked caviar and Prince Edward Island oysters with yuzu purée. Tastings end on a humble note: a sushi roll with a mustard green leaf as a wrapper, an alternative to nori sheets. It was one of my favorite courses. While Kin puts on a great show, he hasn’t forgotten that the best cuisine has roots in simplicity. — Phaedra Cook, editor and publisher
Aiko, 1902 Washington: Fans of Patrick Pham and Daniel Lee’s Kokoro inside Bravery Chef Hall and Handies Douzo in the Heights (and soon also in Montrose) were excited to find out the duo were opening a new brick-and-mortar concept that would bring it all together in one space. Aiko, which means “love child”, incorporates the perfectly dressed sushi and fresh sashimi of Kokoro with the craveable handrolls and crudos of Handies Douzo. While the space at Aiko is a little more upscale than its casual sister restaurants, it’s still a comfortable vibe; after all, the sushi counter is decorated with rubber duckies and Funko Pop! figures.
In a city where omakase is all the rage, Aiko’s is built for affordability, with three levels priced at $35, $55 and $95. The $35 omakase will get you a crudo, such as madai crudo with compressed Fuji apples and sweet peppers; a selection of three nigiri that could include cuts like akami (bluefin tuna); and a handroll, like BGB Sake with Big Glory Bay salmon and yuzu kosho. Fair warning: Aiko’s modern industrial space can be very loud when it’s crowded and music is playing. That may be an issue for some, but the delicious food should make up for the din. — Minh T. Truong, food and beverage writer
Amrina, 3 Waterway Square: At this upscale Indian restaurant in The Woodlands, chef Jaspratap “Jassi” Bindra is serving diverse, elegant and somewhat unorthodox dishes that have been receiving a lot of praise. His eclectic menu includes a variety of Indian breads with upscale twists, caviar service and small plates, including unique fare such as Ostrich Kebabs and charred octopus, and a tapas tasting menu. The entrées are approachable, packed with flavor and in many cases innovative, such as the Green Circle Chicken Makhani (butter chicken), made with peppadew and cashew curry, and the Jackfruit Biryani. A personal favorite is Tandoori Pork Belly, from the small plates section. Cooked in a tandoor, the pork is served in a warm and lightly sweet pickle sauce with a zesty finish.
The cocktails lack the balance and execution exhibited in the food, with a focus on style over flavor. However, with a great selection of spirits, the potential is there.
Amrina is roomy with a celebratory atmosphere and louder-than-average music, especially on the weekends. This might be uncomfortable for some diners, but the restaurant utilizes space well, keeping the noise levels from becoming overwhelming.
Where Amrina absolutely wowed was customer service. Nearly every employee was attentive and friendly. Whether you were walking past an owner or food runner, you were made to feel welcome. Truly worth noting, the bartender/server for the evening provided the best customer service experience I’ve had all year, even though they were working a double solo shift on a busy night. — Ryan Baker, food and beverage writer
Burger Bodega, 4520 Washington: Instagram influencer Abbas Dhanani hit it out of the park when he turned his smash burger pop-up into a brick-and-mortar restaurant, decorated with homages to both Houston and New York City. With a lifetime of working in and running fast food restaurants, he’s regularly onsite at Burger Bodega, ensuring the spot runs like a well-oiled machine.
Burger Bodega has only been open since November 3, yet regularly has a line. The menu is short, and each item is executed as though the restaurant has been established for years, not weeks. Guests have the choice between the signature smash burger or a New York City bodega-inspired chopped cheese, a mix of cheese, ground beef, onions, peppers and bodega sauce on a hero roll. Regardless of which you choose, neither is the wrong answer. Burger Bodega has three options for French fries: regular, topped with sauce and cheese or dressed like a cheeseburger (with patties). For dessert, Burger Bodega has partnered with Craft Creamery to serve milkshakes that include classic flavors such as vanilla, chocolate and strawberry, as well as unique offerings like mango lassi and Vietnamese coffee. — Ryan Baker, food and beverage writer
burger-chan, 5353 West Alabama: Running a restaurant is hard. Closing one and opening a new-and-improved version during a pandemic is even harder. Owners Diane and Willet Feng have been transparent about the challenges of closing their first burger eatery when the pandemic had all but shut down the Greenway Plaza business campus where it was located, as well about the rewards and trials of opening their first brick-and-mortar, which they dubbed burger-chan 2.0.
At the new spot in the Galleria area, the couple continue to serve the technique-driven, 2-ounce smash patties made with 44 Farms beef that have long been considered one of the best burgers in Houston. At the new, larger location, they now have room to offer a 5-ounce grilled patty, a grilled chicken sandwich, a fried fish option, falafel and hotdogs. All options are highly customizable. You can choose your bun, toppings, sides and creative condiments such as scallion aioli and sambal mayo.
The highlight, of course, are still the burgers, especially the smash burger, arguably the one that kicked off Houston’s current obsession with charred, thin, lacey beef patties. What makes the Fengs’ burgers special is their umami-rich glaze of butter, mushroom, soy and Worcestershire sauce that transforms the beef from good to great. It’s still one of the best burgers in Houston. — David Leftwich, associate editor
Cucharita, 315 Fairview: Grab your little spoons and enjoy a whimsical and leisurely dining experience, or jumpstart your day with hearty and blissful to-go options at this cozy Mexican café. Much like its older sister restaurant, Cuchara, Cucharita will transport you to the heart of Mexico City with vibrant and authentic cuisine, feminine charm and an all-day breakfast and lunch menu. For the Cuchara brunch enthusiast, the Chilaquiles de Semana is a comforting classic that can now be devoured daily. In addition, the menu offers a variety of egg dishes and coffee drinks to suit your needs. For those with a sweet tooth, off the menu are an assortment of sweet breads made in-house daily that will invigorate your senses. — Danielle Lomeli, food writer
Gatlin’s Fins & Feathers, 302 West Crosstimbers: Let me just say it: my recent lunch at the new restaurant from the folks behind highly acclaimed Gatlin’s BBQ was one of the best meals I’ve had in a long time. It started with sublime, pillowy biscuits with a crunchy exterior that were served with tangy-and-sweet bacon jam — these are my new platonic ideal for judging future biscuits. Next came fried chicken with beautifully moist meat and immaculately crisp, lightly seasoned skin. The collard greens with smoked turkey — my choice from a selection of six sides that include red beans and rice and mac-n-cheese — were some of the best braised greens I’ve had. It was a near-ideal blend of slightly bitter, earthy greens, heat and smokiness. And yes, I tipped up the bowl and drank the spicy pot liquor.
In addition to fried chicken, executive chef Michelle Wallace, chef de cuisine Darius King and chef and owner Greg Gatlin are offering a full menu that includes chargrilled and fresh oysters, New Orleans-style barbecue shrimp, fried shrimp, blackened catfish, gumbo and more. Plus, there are local beers and wine by the glass and bottle. All of this is served by a friendly staff in a cozy, nostalgia-inducing environment that reminds me of The Place, the restaurant in the small town of Elserry, Missouri where I grew up. Though Gatlin’s Fins & Feathers may not be serving that memory-laced eatery’s signature fried frog legs, it is serving exemplary versions of classic American fare that will surely create wonderful memories for years to come. — David Leftwich, associate editor
Lees Den, 2424 Dunstan: This hideout in Rice Village conjures nostalgia. The name is an homage to both owner Benjy Levit’s mother Leah and the now-closed Houston Chinese restaurant, Lee’s, which they frequented together. As you walk into the building that is now Local Foods Market, you may have memories of Benjy’s, which closed in 2020 in the midst of the pandemic. As you walk up the stairs to Lees Den’s speakeasy entrance, you’ll feel the playful sentimentality of discovering a secret place in your backyard, but what you’ll actually find is a charming and intimate wine bar with excellent food.
The focused menu, which is overseen by executive chef Maria Gonzalez, offers many shareable plates that lean toward Asian influences — another nod to Lee’s. But the dishes run the gamut from crudo of the moment (currently a cured Mangrove Snapper) to pasta al pomodoro to a 44 Farms New York strip steak with French potato purée. The beverage program is curated by general manager and wine director Chrisanna Shewbart and boasts a wine list featuring over 400 bottles with prices ranging from $27 to $200, a rotating by-the-glass selection and creative wine-based cocktails such as Lillet and Tonic with Lillet Blanc and Rouge, bitters, orange and Indian tonic.
Those who were regulars at Benjy’s will remember the stellar happy hour menu. They’ll be happy that Lees offers one to rival it with $7 cocktails and snacks that includes Sesame Ginger Meatballs, and the must-order Bread and Caviar, housemade Japanese milk bread served with European butter and smoked trout roe. Be warned: you will want a second order of this delicate, feathery, soft bread and you will spread on it every bit of the creamy butter and salty, briny roe. – Minh T. Truong, food and beverage writer
Moon Rabbit, 605 West 19th: In April, this modern Vietnamese bistro opened with little fanfare in the former home of longtime Heights staple Vietnam Restaurant. Instead of media blitzes, chefs Tam Nguyen and Rudy Vasquez have focused on offering high-quality Vietnamese fare that ranges from Houston standbys such as lemongrass pork bánh mì and phở đặc biệt (phở with tenderloin, brisket, tendon and meatballs) to creative Bayou City-influenced dishes like Bánh Xèo Tostado, a crispy rice pancake topped with pork belly, shrimp and a delicate-yet-zingy coconut crema.
The standouts on our most recent visit included a superb version of shaken beef and Miso-Marinated Claypot Fish, featuring perfectly cooked Atlantic cod enhanced by a deep, umami-rich, caramelized fish sauce counterpointed with the brassica-sharpness of roasted Brussels sprouts and the heat of Thai chilies. In addition, there is a full beverage menu with local beers, wine by the glass and bottle and signature cocktails such as the subtle-yet-booze-forward Baby Girl’s Wish, which mixes Suntory Toki, Dos Hombres mezcal, butterfly pea syrup and lemon. With its sharply tweaked dishes and modern decor that mixes bright colors and dark wood, Moon Rabbit should become a Houston institution that outshines the former longtime occupant of this low-slung building on the Heights’ “main street.” — David Leftwich, associate editor
Pacha Nikkei, 10001 Westheimer: Vibrant ceviches and succulent lomo saltado are just a few of the stellar dishes that you’ll find at chef Masaru Fukuda’s restaurant in the Westchase area featuring Nikkei cuisine. This hybrid of Peruvian and Japanese cuisines results in dishes featuring fresh seafood, fiery South American peppers and seasonings, and Asian preparation and flavors.
One look around the contemporary dining space sets the tone, with deep blues throughout the space accented by murals depicting Fukuda’s own family and other Japanese immigrants who moved to Peru. Those looking for classic Asian fare will find familiarity in the gyoza frita or any of the numerous sushi rolls available on the menu. However, the real stars of the show are the dishes showcasing the seamless fusion of Peruvian and Japanese foodways. Try the ceviche chalaco for a medley of seafood in a zesty leche de tigre marinade, and don’t miss out on the lomo saltado, a dish that a fellow guest was gushing about before I was even seated at my table. The lucuma cheesecake is also a delight, utilizing the South American fruit that lends a rich caramel-like tone to the dessert. The dishes are thoughtful and well-executed, but more importantly they shine a spotlight on a type of cuisine that is surprisingly uncommon in Houston – and hopefully Pacha Nikkei will help put it on the map in the city’s culinary landscape. — Cindy Wang, food and beverage writer
Passerella, 9945 Barker Cypress: From the GR8 Plate Hospitality group, the company behind Union Kitchen, this American-Italian eatery adds a much-needed, quality restaurant to Cypress. The space, which offers beautiful views of Boardwalk Towne Lake, is warm, subtle and comforting — a contrast to the more upscale and manufactured atmospheres that typically grab attention. Passerella has a large dining room and bar, plus a massive patio that overlooks the lake. The service and staff are friendly and accommodating.
The food at Passerella is familiar, reminding me of the American-Italian restaurants that I grew up with, yet elevated by attention to detail and quality cooking. A sizable portion of the menu focuses on rich, filling, meat-heavy pasta dishes such as Mama’s Spaghetti and Meatballs and Creamy Alfredo with your choice of protein. Chef Ed’s 7 Layer Pasta features thin layers of pasta (locally made by Della Casa), cheese sauce and a pleasant, herbaceous meat blend. The restaurant also offers several pizzas, with thin but airy dough made daily in-house. The balanced and diverse drinks at Passerella are also a pleasant surprise, as cocktail bars are in short supply in Cypress. — Ryan Baker, food and beverage writer
Tatemó, 4740 Dacoma: At this modest, 13-seat restaurant in a strip center across the street from Karbach Brewing, masa, which is nixtamalized in-house from heirloom Mexican corn, takes center stage. The brick-and-mortar, which opened in February, is the culmination of the years chef Emmanuel Chavez and his partner Megan Maul spent perfecting and selling their housemade tortillas, masa and polished Mexican dishes at farmers markets and pop-ups. Currently, the couple are offering a six-course, reservation-only tasting menu on Friday and Saturday nights and walk-in brunch on Sundays. (Also, be on the lookout for semi-regular Tuesday taco collaborations with local and visiting chefs.)
The six-course dinner tastings explore the richness of corn, one of the most important ingredients indigenious to the Americas, and the dishes change regularly depending on what’s in season. They may include a delectable flor de calabaza quesadilla, a rich-yet-delicate corn consommé or perfectly cooked ribeye medallions served with charred peppers and tortillas. Brunch often features masa pancakes, a selection of quesadillas including an earthy huitlacoche option and rich enmoladas (enchiladas smothered with mole). The menu for the taco collabs change with each chef, but a recent one with the PX Project and two Afghan refugees included a galvanic charred lamb taco with refried dal and chickpea crackers. Whichever way you experience Tatemó, which is currently BYOB, Chavez’s thoughtful dishes will change the way you think about corn. — David Leftwich, associate editor
Uchiko, 1801 Post Oak: The Galleria area has lacked great bars, and while not technically an izakaya (a Japanese bar focused on drinks and accompanying snacks), this Austin-born gem helps fill that void as an upscale alternative. Where Uchi only offers sake and wine, Uchiko leans heavily on cocktails and spirits (although there’s certainly plenty of sake and wine, too).
It’s not just a drinking establishment, though. Here, diners will find a line of hard-at-work sushi chefs crafting nigiri and rolls with the care for which Hai Hospitality (the group behind Uchi) is known. The vibe is more relaxed, though, and the less-precious 5- or 10-course omakase is a great introduction to Uchiko’s food offerings. Omakase is offered at market prices, but hovers around $75 for the five-course and $100 for the 10. Alternately, go for happy hour and indulge in nigiri, temaki (hand rolls) and other small bites ranging from $2 to $16, $5 sake, half-priced bubbles and the $9 Uchiko G & T (gin and tonic) with Asian pear and rosemary.
For dinner (Uchiko is not open for lunch), signature sushi to try includes bincho, albacore tuna topped with sweet chili and the P-38 makimono (roll) with yellowtail, avocado, yuzu kosho, grilled negi (green onion) and cilantro. My hands-down favorite dish so far is the Toro Nuta, bluefin tuna sashimi with blueberries in lemon dashi and dusted with pistachio. Non-fish-loving friends can indulge in dry-aged duck, Sakura Pork Belly or a dry-aged New York strip. Phaedra Cook, editor and publisher
Wild Oats, 2520 Airline at Houston Farmers Market: When executive chef and founder Chris Shepherd parted ways with Underbelly Hospitality, gasps were heard around Houston. (Later, culinary director and Wild Oats executive chef Nick Fine would leave, too, although he remains a partner in the restaurant.) However, what needs to be remembered is that talented executive chefs now run the kitchens of Underbelly Hospitality’s three restaurants: Greg Peters at Georgia James, Tim Reading at GJ Tavern (noted in our Honorable Mentions) and Chris Davies at Wild Oats. There, Davies, an Uchi alum, is carrying on with Fine’s vision of exploring Texan cuisine.
Nostalgia runs deep at Wild Oats. I could not have been more excited to see Medina County Steak Tartare on the menu, a hard-to-find dish that enhances chopped, raw prime beef with serrano vinaigrette, shallots, chives and Redneck cheddar. The Haven-Style Shrimp Corn Dogs nearly brought a wistful tear to my eye, as I spent many afternoons dining at the bar counter of the long-gone but seminal Houston restaurant helmed by Randy Evans, the dish’s creator. Of course, how can you even call it a Texan restaurant without a big chicken fried steak? You can’t, so of course there’s one on the menu.
Brunch is sumptuous. There are platters of salads, chorizo breakfast tacos, stacked chicken enchiladas, smoked chicken wings and even R.C. Ranch steaks. Housemade dessert bites, such as mini pecan pies, compete for attention with pastries from nearby El Bolillo. Before or after dining, a stroll perusing the Houston Farmers Market’s aisles of colorful produce, spices and merchandise makes for a vibrant afternoon that could not be more quintessentially “Houston”. — Phaedra Cook, editor and publisher