The Best New Houston Restaurants of 2023
When it comes time to make our picks for the best new Houston restaurants, I mull over what kind of year it’s been. Each has a certain character to it. Some are exciting and memorable, marking the opening of restaurants that are so impactful that they evolve and bring attention to Houston’s food scene.
Other years tend to be understated, and that’s how 2023 feels. The flow and character of the restaurant openings are more a steady chug than groundbreaking launches. The years of 2021 and 2022 were punctuated by tasting-menu restaurants like Le Jardinier, March, Degust, 5Kinokawa and Hidden Omakase, ready to serve diners starved for remarkable experiences after being cooped up for months. By contrast, 2023 seems like the year of the “nice restaurant” — not exceptionally fancy, but still with much to offer. At these restaurants, the proof is not in the drama of the environs or dining experience; it’s directly on your plate.
This may be the natural and direct response to a year of belt-tightening. Inflation has put a pinch on not only how much people are going out to eat, but also on restaurant margins. Modest but well-appointed spaces are in vogue, and we as food writers should take a reminder to heart that “best” does not mean “most expensive”. “Best” means not having regrets when your check appears, whether it’s $15 or $150, because you feel like the food, service and experience you received was of superlative value. This year, the vast majority of our honorees fall into the mid-level price range, and we think all of them will provide pleasant surprises. In order to be considered, restaurants must have opened between December 1, 2022 and November 30, 2023.
— Phaedra Cook, editor and publisher
Belly of the Beast, 5200 Farm To Market 2920, Spring: Chef Thomas Bille and his wife, Elizabeth, first opened Belly of the Beast in Old Town Spring. After getting through the pandemic thanks to to-go orders, Bille closed the restaurant and took a role as executive chef at short-lived Chivos in the Heights. While it wasn’t an enduring tenure, it was long enough to impress multiple restaurant critics and food writers.
Now, he’s back to doing his own thing. Belly of the Beast has returned to a new location in Spring, and there’s nothing beastly about it. It’s full of charm, and Bille is back to his relentless experimentation with flavors and textures, as evidenced in dishes such as Grilled Shrimp & Pork Belly, where the meats are nestled amid a mass of Thai-style greens and accompanied with lettuce wraps and a gentle chile sauce. His Mexican interpretation of an Indian classic, saag paneer, employs queso flameado-style cheese atop spinach mole verde and offers an opportunity to delight in his scratch-made heirloom corn tortillas. (Tip: ask for some salsa macha on the side. Bille makes several varieties, including one made with almonds and another with peanuts. I can’t wait until he bottles and sells these.) The Squid Ink Tagliatelle dressed in lemongrass arrabbiata sauce is the current must-order pasta dish. It comes with a perfect egg yolk perched on top, and the richness it lends, along with the generous smattering of bottarga breadcrumbs, made the dish a festival of flavors and textures.
Spring residents are fortunate that Belly of the Beast is back. The rest of us will have to drive to relish Bille’s creative dishes — and it’s totally worth the effort. — Phaedra Cook, editor and publisher
Coastline Pizzeria, 1720 Houston: With all of the pizza shops opening in Houston, it is impressive that chefs Armando DiMeo and Cody Kinsey have so successfully created a menu with strictly traditional pizza Napoletana, while also serving two other styles of pizza, one of which is a unique Texas-style pizza of DiMeo’s design.
From the pizza oven imported from Napoli to using certified San Marzano tomatoes, Coastline Pizzeria’s owners are taking every step to ensure their pizza Napoletana is authentic. After a 36- to 48-hour fermentation, the dough is ready to be stretched, topped and baked at 900 degrees, all in sight of the customers. The results are textbook — a bubbly dough with a soft flavor. The selections for toppings are also very classical, such as the Margherita with San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella di bufala and basil. Topped with Calabrese salami, fior di latte (fancy for cow’s milk cheese) chile flakes and basil, the more traditional pies, Diavolo packs the most punch, in terms of both flavor and spice.
The Napoletana is excellent, but every time I visit Coastline, I go for the Texas-style pizza. A concoction of Dimeo’s design, the same fermented dough is oiled up, rubbed with herbs, par-cooked in the pizza oven and finished on the grill, giving the dough a delightful crunch and a new depth of flavor. The available toppings are also much more intense. Only slightly spicy and semi-sweet, The OG, topped with mozzarella, Italian sausage, pepperoncini, ricotta, habanero honey, basil and tomato sauce is a flavorful party for the tastebuds. The Motherland, featuring mozzarella, Parmigiano-Reggiano, oregano and alternating stripes of tomato sauce and pesto is a personal favorite. Opt to add the cup-and-char pepperoni for some added spice. Other options include Buffalo chicken and The H-Town featuring Khói Barbecue brisket.
If you took away the delicious pizza, Coastline still holds its own as a bar. Longtime industry professional, Jason Garcia both designed the bar menu and leads the front of the house. Much like the pizza choices, cocktails range from traditional favorites like the negroni and dirty martini to creative potions like the Ghetto Bird and La Sandia. All of the drinks, so far, have been balanced and enjoyable. — Ryan Kasey Baker, food and beverage writer
Comalito, 2520 Airline: Located in the Houston Farmers Market, Underbelly Hospitality’s newest restaurant focuses on authentic Mexican fare, with much of the menu spotlighting the street food of Mexico City.
Comalito just opened on November 17, but the churros have already garnered much fanfare. The traditional pastry is a massive spiral that’s generously coated in cinnamon sugar and comes with a side of chocolate sauce. Compared to the churros I’ve had in CDMX, Comalito’s have an unparalleled pillowy texture.
While the churros steal the show, the rest of the food is exceptional as well. Appetizers include guacamole, ensalada de nopalitos (grilled cactus salad) and frijoles puerco (refried beans with pork). There is also queso served in small dishes, called cazuela, with either chorizo or roasted poblano pepper. The entrée list is lengthy, with options that include tacos, volcanes (cheesy tostadas), Alambre (a choice of grilled meat with vegetables and bacon) and quesadillas. There are a variety of meat and vegetable options, such as pastor, sirloin, arrachera (skirt steak), chicken and grilled peppers. For more adventurous eaters, suadero (a thin cut of beef from between the belly and leg), tripe, lengua (tongue) and cachete (cheek) are also available. The restaurant also has a full bar, with a decent selection of Mexican spirits.
At the moment, Comalito has table service like its predecessor, Wild Oats. However, in the coming weeks, it will be converted to counter service, as is the style at other taquerias. — Ryan Kasey Baker, food and beverage writer
Jūn, 420th East 20th Street: Decatur Bar & Pop-Up Factory, an underappreciated restaurant that showcased future Top Chef competitor Evelyn Garcia’s considerable talents, lacked her future restaurant’s polish, but it did foreshadow the menu. Jūn, in which Garcia is a partner along with chef Henry Lu, offers a delightfully unexpected and unpretentious melding of flavors and cultures. I was tickled to see the expertly executed fried chicken (brined in shrimp paste for tenderness and complexity) once available at Decatur carried over to Jūn. (Tip: if you work in the restaurant industry, visit on Tuesday nights when four slightly seared Gulf oysters and the fried chicken is $25.) I longed for a little more egg yolk encased in the artful sesame buñuelo topping the beef tartare to come dashing out, but the citrus notes and succulent beef make it a must-order rendition nonetheless.
Jūn’s also serving one of Houston’s best micheladas, which gets extra brine and sultriness from dashes of hoisin fish sauce. (There’s a green one, too, but I far prefer the red.) Be sure and have the deeply roasted, skin-on peanuts seasoned with chili, garlic and lime leaves alongside. The Ginger She Really Hot was also a worthy drink that escaped being a sake-based mule with the additions of not only ginger, but also Thai basil and lime.
Yes, the food is impressive, and two other aspects of the restaurant also impressed me. Garcia and crew, who work in a glass-encased kitchen, are so orderly and calm about their work that it totally belies the stereotype of the screaming, out-of-control chef. Her kitchen is like a sanctum for food. The second thing: success has not changed Garcia at all. She’s as warm and friendly as ever, just busier and more in demand. — Phaedra Cook, editor and publisher
Katami, 2701 West Dallas: Kata Robata has been a staple in Houston’s culinary landscape, and the adage seemed to be, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Now, after nearly 15 years, chef Manabu “Hori” Horiuchi and partner Yun Cheng have debuted sister concept Katami, and by all accounts it was worth the wait. Katami (meaning gift or keepsake) is an extension of what Horiuchi has done so well at Kata Robata. The focus remains on high-quality sushi, with fish flown in almost daily from Japan. Katami, however, also heavily features Wagyu beef, highlighted in different preparations such as the Texas Wagyu Beef Salad with arugula, cabbage, sliced apple and pickled shimeji mushroom in sesame soy vinaigrette. The earthy and sweet vegetables balance the richness of the beef, creating an almost delicate bite.
For something even more decadent, opt for A5 Kagoshima Wagyu served Shabu Shabu style. A paper hot pot is prepared tableside, and just a quick dip into the simmering broth is enough to very lightly cook the meat and release the richness of the buttery melting fat. Horiuchi also displays a little more creativity in the preparations and presentations at Katami than at Kata Robata. The Foie Gras PBJ Milk Bread with Nutella, maraschino cherry and blueberry compote is a playful bite. The house-smoked salmon is brought to the table in a bento box, and when unveiled from underneath a cloche reveals the rose-shaped salmon. The accompanying avocado, pickled onion and yuzu foam complete the whimsical play on bagel and lox.
Dessert is not to be missed! The Kakigori (Japanese-style shaved ice) is made with ice from Kanazawa, Japan. The fluffy, airy ice soaks up the flavors of the added creams and fruits, which in the case of the Rainbow Kakigori include strawberry, mango, blueberry, condensed milk and yuzu cream. It is a light dessert that doesn’t overwhelm the palate, and it’s a lighthanded finish after all the intricate flavors of Katami’s savory offerings.
Katami hasn’t been open long, and the team members are still getting their bearings, but if Kata’s long tenure is any indication, there will be much more to explore. With Katami, Horiuchi and Cheng have “gifted” Houston with another worthy destination. — Minh T. Truong, food writer
Little’s Oyster Bar, 3001 South Shepherd: This restaurant was one of this year’s most anticipated openings, and it replaced Little Pappas Seafood House in early May. Other than the focus on seafood and the impeccable service that the Pappas name has come to be known for, Little’s has little in common with its predecessor. It’s a far glitzier affair, from the renovated décor to the chef-driven menu featuring heaping seafood towers, Texas wild Gulf shrimp, Maine lobster, fresh fish sourced using Pappas’ own boats and its signature caviar that executive chef Jason Ryczek, a veteran of high-end restaurants in California, personally harvests. The caviar service comes with puffed potato dumplings (that almost steal the show), radish butter, crème fraîche, onion jam and chives. A little bit of everything atop a golden dumpling is the absolute perfect bite.
The seasonal menu incorporates new dishes and ingredients. Every dish we tried was executed flawlessly, with each ingredient as much the star as an integral part of the dish. On one visit, a chilled appetizer offering was Atlantic Yellowfin Tuna Crudo with pickled watermelon rind, peanuts and mint, and on the next, it was Yellowfin Tuna Mi-Cuit (partially cooked) with pomegranate, red walnut and roasted pepper shiso.
Little’s prices are high, but the quality and portion sizes do justify the cost. For your first visit, start with crab croquettes, which are all crab and no filler, then move on to an entrée of Gulf grouper with radish beurre blanc and caper brown butter. For a side dish, the crisp eggplant with nước chấm, chili and sweet herbs is a prime example of Ryczek’s homage to the diversity of his new home. — Minh Truong, food writer
Luloo’s Day and Night, 1223 West 34th Street: Part bakery, part bodega and diner, this spot in the Stomping Grounds mixed-use development proves a restaurant doesn’t have to be fancy to be great. It was initially a partnership between Blood Bros. BBQ and pastry chef Alyssa Dole, who’s known for her prior work at Agricole Hospitality, with chef Arash Kharat leading the kitchen. Dole created the amazing pastry and bread program, but recently parted ways with the company. So, it’s unclear what the future holds, but Luloo’s is, by far, my most visited restaurant of 2023.
Many of those near-weekly trips were for a kolache (typically available in hot dog, pizza or brisket and cheese) and either the turkey club, with sliced turkey, thick applewood smoked bacon, shredded lettuce, sprouts, tomato, havarti, mayo and grilled milk bread, or grilled chicken ciabatta, with cilantro-lime chicken, applewood smoked bacon, spring mix, tomato, avocado, havarti, sambal mayo and ciabatta. Both sandwiches are on the lighter and milder side, and ideal for when you have a full day ahead of you and don’t want to be weighed down. For heartier options, you can’t go wrong with the Smashed Meatball Sub, stuffed with smashed Italian beef sausage meatballs, melted mozzarella and marinara on a toasted baguette, or the classic cheeseburger made with 44 Farms beef, American cheese, lettuce, tomato, house-pickled red onion and bread-and-butter pickles.
The rest of the menu is populated with the American (and some Tex-Mex) standards that many of us grew up with, but done in a high-quality fashion. There is something for everyone: queso, fried okra, pretzels, wings, salads and nearly a dozen sandwiches, including vegetarian options. Luloo’s has dedicated kids’ options such as grilled cheese, karaage nuggies and a cheeseburger. There are also several grab-and-go options, including musubi, with BBQ Spam made by Blood Bros., Cinnamon Roll Bread Pudding and housemade Rice Krispie treats. Luloo’s has coffee from local roastery Katz Coffee and a full bar.
The dining room feels like a hybrid of a diner and a modern bodega. The staff is friendly, and the owners are frequently onsite interacting with customers. The shelves are lined with housemade breads, pickles and Blood Bros.’ sauces, as well as other locally made foodstuffs. — Ryan Kasey Baker, food and beverage writer
The Lymbar, 4201 Main: With his founding of restaurants such as Churrascos and Américas, chef Michael Cordúa firmly established his Latin cuisine as an important touchstone in Houston’s culinary history. His son, David, was raised into the business, became a chef and both he and his father were involved with the restaurants until a contentious dispute with other stakeholders in the company. So, it’s particularly good to see the Cordúa legacy continue at David’s own restaurant, The Lymbar.
Make no mistake, though: this is no clone of any place his father founded — although Michael is still very much around and involved. The Lymbar is the product of David’s culinary education blended with his own experiences and heritage. The Cordúa classics haven’t been abandoned. Empanadas (the Spinach, Feta & Halloumi and Beef Kofta are my favorites), ceviche, churrasco steak and tres leches are all there, some updated with David’s own sensibilities as a chef. However, his new additions are the most exciting, including The Rosespud, an appetizer that will make fellow diners’ jaws drop when a server sails it across the dining room, as it’s impossibly long chips in an artful arrangement. The Truffle Twinkies is an award-winning dish and a fine starter, with rectangular, airy pastry filled with egg yolk custard and topped with freshly shaved truffles. Bring a friend if you can so you can taste multiple main courses. Perhaps your buddy can get the classic churrasco steak and you can order a dish I have a soft spot for: the Stuffed Chicken Ballotine, which enrobes mole poblano, avocado, vermicelli rice, sesame and cilantro. Get further details on all of the attractions of The Lymbar in a rare full review. — Phaedra Cook, editor and publisher
Mimo, 736 ½ Telephone: The last few years have seen an avalanche of over-the-top, brightly lit, and pricey Italian restaurants, many of which fall flat when it comes to the actual food. Eschewing that repetitive model is Mimo, co-owned by chef Fernando Rios and Mike Sammon. It’s a quiet, inviting, classical Italian restaurant tucked in the back corner space of East End’s Tlaquepaque Market Square that was formerly Kanomwan. Rios is best known for his time at Weights & Measures and Sammons, a beverage expert, helped open bars such as 13 Celsius and the defunct Mongoose vs Cobra and How to Survive on Land & Sea.
The menu is structured in the style of a traditional Italian trattoria, with categories including ofiniziare (starting), antipasti (appetizers), primi (first), secondi (second) and dolci (sweets). Having visited a dozen times in 2023, I definitely have a few personal favorites. The crudo, made with thinly sliced bay scallops, orange slices, lemon, herbs and pumpkin seeds, and drizzled with balsamic and extra-virgin olive oil is visually stunning thanks to the placement of ingredients and myriad of contrasting colors. The balance of flavors is equally impressive, with the salty, sweet, bitter and nutty flavors comprising a bright beginning to a meal.
The dishes where Rios’ skills shine the brightest are the ones featuring his homemade pastas. The light orecchiette with pancetta, roasted tomatoes and arugula, and the warming fettuccine, with pork sausage, spicy marinara and English peas, hit opposite ends of the heartiness spectrum, but are both delicious and fulfilling. Rios also offers a marinara and Parmigiano-topped gnocchi that belied my belief that I disliked gnocchi. I’d just never had good ones before. Do not skip out before dessert. Each is so well done that it is hard to pinpoint a favorite. However, I’ve ordered the panna cotta and biscotti amaretti on nearly every visit. For drinks, there are a few coffee and digestif options, and a massive wine selection, with a focus on Italian wines.
The food and wine are still pieces to the complete experience that is Mimo. Amir Alimi, pulls the experience together as host, with an enchanting ability to make guests instantly feel like when you’re there, you’re family. In contrast to the previously mentioned over-the-top Italian restaurants, Mimo is an ideal place to de-stress over a comforting meal or for taking a date for a quiet night out. — Ryan Kasey Baker, food and beverage writer
Nonno’s Family Pizza Tavern, 1613 Richmond: Tap into your inner ’90s kid at this retro-themed pizza place, specializing in Chicago tavern-style pizza. Baked with a crisp, cracker-thin crust, the pizzas are the main event, with the Wise Guy being a favorite. Topped with Nonno’s housemade sauce, cheese, sausage and a zesty giardiniera, the combination of hearty sausage and gooey cheese is balanced by the pickled vegetables in the giardiniera, possibly making it the best way to eat your veggies at a pizza joint. The supporting cast of appetizers and drinks shouldn’t be ignored either, such as the Mozz Sticks — some of the stretchiest cheese sticks in town — the extensive wine selection, and thoughtfully curated cocktails. Try a frozen negroni for a bright and citrusy approach to the classically bitter cocktail, or stick with any of the other well-made classics on the menu. If you’re feeling brave, you can get a shot of Malört for a dollar, which is served in a ridiculously fun shot glass on a toy car. With classic arcade games flanking one wall and a playlist pumping ’90s hip hop and R&B, Nonno’s creates the perfect recipe for a delicious trip down memory lane. — Cindy Wang, food writer
Pastore, 1180 Dunlavy: This underrated restaurant by Underbelly Hospitality, which also runs Georgia James Steakhouse just a few steps away, represents the other side of the company’s upscale dining coin. Where Georgia James is bold, Pastore, a coastal Italian restaurant, is gentle, as evidenced in the muted blue-gray design palette, vaguely nautical theme and yacht rock playing on the overheads.
There’s nothing sedate about the food, though. Chef Jeff Potts, a native Houstonian formerly of restaurants such as Helen Greek Food, ‘93 til and the aforementioned Georgia James Steakhouse, is doing a fine job with the menu. Pastore is serving one of the city’s best carbonaras using real guanciale (pork jowl) and Pecorino Romano. It’s everything anyone could want in this dish: eggy, creamy and decadent. I’ve ordered the Lightly Cured Gulf Snapper twice now, because I crave the placid juxtaposition of the silky fish and the lemony, herbal tartness of the dressing and Castelvetrano olives (the best olives in the world, as far as I’m concerned). I often actually choose pasta for my entrée here, but for something heartier, try the porchetta of roasted pork belly with white bean and fennel ragout. Those on a budget might instead opt for the affordable $30 pan-seared hanger steak with piquillo mostarda, eggplant and fennel.
Pastore is also serving a must-try brunch. In addition to savory dishes, such as the aforementioned carbonara and Lightly Cured Gulf Snapper, the brunch menu also offers an amazing Breakfast Pizza topped with pancetta, poached eggs, hash browns, caramelized onions and Mornay sauce. There are also brunch dishes on the sweeter side, such as the ethereal brioche covered in mascarpone, blueberry molasses and hazelnuts, and Lemon Ricotta Pancakes with braised figs and almonds. The drinks are consistently great, too, such as the Olio-Tini with olive oil-washed Malfy gin, Mulassano extra dry vermouth and bay leaf, and at brunch-time, the Antipasto Bloody Mary with vodka, housemade Mary mix, lemon and chili salt.
Many of us were dismayed and shocked when James Beard Award-winning chef Chris Shepherd parted ways with Underbelly Hospitality. I hope that someday he again opens a restaurant (there’s no filling the void in my heart after losing the original Underbelly) but considering the incredible success of his charity, Southern Smoke Foundation, and his TV show, “Eat Like a Local”, which debuted in September, I have to believe it was all for the best.
In the meantime, Underbelly Hospitality is proving it’s capable of hiring great chefs who run restaurants worth talking about. — Phaedra Cook, editor and publisher
PS-21, 2712 Richmond: There will always be room in Houston — and in my heart — for a good French restaurant. PS-21 marks a welcome return to form for longtime Houston chef Philippe Schmit, who’s teamed up with Sébastien Laval who, ironically, was wine director at La Table, the restaurant that replaced Schmit’s eponymous Philippe Restaurant + Lounge. (The “PS” in the name stands for Philippe and Sébastien.) PS-21 is less spacious and posh than Schmit’s former two-story restaurant, and frankly, I prefer it. The intimate dining room is a cozier, warmer environment, whereas the old restaurant could feel a little cavernous.
PS-21’s menu offers spot-on executions of classic French dishes. The Croque Monsieur Bites on pillowy housemade brioche topped with béchamel and Parisian ham are an absolutely delightful appetizer (and substantial; one order would have been a meal for me). We were wild for the mussels in curry sauce. It’s rare that you see any so plump and tender (although the sauce didn’t do much for the fries alongside). A true test for a French restaurant is how well they do with roasted chicken, and I couldn’t have asked for better than PS-21’s version with crisp skin, tender meat and whipped potatoes, Brussels sprouts and housemade barbecue sauce alongside. (At $34, it’s also one of the least-expensive entrées, albeit a generously portioned one.) That said, what all the cool kids are running in for is the highly Instagrammable raclette experience for two, where melted cheese is served tableside onto fingerling potatoes. Salad crudité, charcuterie board and pickles come alongside.
For drinks, I had a lot of fun with the “tiny ‘tini” martini trio made with The Botanist gin (one of my favorites). The Gibson and dirty varieties were excellent. I found the classic heavy on orange bitters and said so to our server. Next time, I’ll just order a regular-sized Gibson. On the dessert menu, I was gratified to see two of Schmidt’s signature desserts: floating island — meringue atop vanilla crème anglaise with mixed berries and caramel — and Flamed Apple Tatin with cardamom caramel and vanilla ice cream. It is a very good thing to have a place for enjoying Schmit’s French classics again. — Phaedra Cook, editor and publisher
th_prsrv, 709 Harris, Kemah: When it comes to restaurants with high prices, sometimes you need to weigh the value, and ask, “Is this worth it?” With th_prsrv, the food alone would be enough to say, “Yes.” However, the totality of the dining experience makes the sentiment emphatic.
Brought to you by chefs David Skinner of eculent (located in the same building), who is Choctaw Native American and 2023 “Best Chef Texas” James Beard Award winner Benchawan Painter of Street To Kitchen, who is Thai, guests are taken on an adventure, traversing the histories of both Indigenous Americans and Thais by way of their respective cuisines. Diners might find that they’ve never before had opportunities to try some of the ingredients in th_prsrv’s dishes.
The meal begins with Memories of my Grandmother’s Root Cellar, a tray of pickled, fermented and confit vegetables, such as ferns, ramps and fiddleheads, that are meant to be enjoyed throughout the meal. All of these are procured either through foraging or from indigenous farmers. Six months after having it, Painter’s vibrantly orange Gaeng, a dish that dates back to 1200 BCE and is considered a precursor to curry, still holds its place as one of my favorite bites of the year. From the citrusy aroma to the crisp bite of the finger root (similar to ginger), the dish is close to prehistoric perfection.
For the Indigenous American end of the timeline, Flock Together is a standout. Skinner is known for his zanier creations at eculent, and this dish was a rare look at his more-traditional cooking chops. His elegant, simple dry-aged duck breast, served with wojapi sauce and manoomin (wild rice with a light flavor that’s served lukewarm) is something much bolder than the sum of the parts. There are between 13 and 15 courses served during the experience for $149, and unlike many more expensive tasting restaurants, you probably won’t be leaving th_prsrv hungry. Additionally, beverage director/co-owner Graham Painter (Benchawan’s husband and partner in Street To Kitchen) has assembled a drink pairing selection for $129 that features cocktails and indigenous wines. Check out our article on th_presrv for an in-depth look at the full experience. — Ryan Kasey Baker, food and beverage writer
Trill Burgers, 3607 South Shepherd: This was probably the most predestined restaurant in Houston. After a series of sold-out pop-ups not only in Houston but also in Las Vegas and various California cities, rapper Bun B and chef Mike Pham opened Trill Burgers’ first brick-and-mortar at the beginning of June. While lines of fans waiting in Houston’s record-breaking summer heat was not ideal, one day, I was among them and found that Trill Burgers’ staff was doing a masterful job of moving people inside as soon as possible — and maintaining a friendly attitude while doing it. I waited in line for 20 minutes in 100-degree heat, but soon found myself with Houston’s best fast-food burger in hand. Would I do it again? You betcha. (Thankfully, though, my next Trill Burger experience had less drama and more air-conditioning.)
The key to Trill Burgers’ popularity is the execution as much as the ingredients. The patties are thin, deeply seared and have a crunchy frill on the edges. The buns are soft and toasted, and the cheese — well, it’s American, of course. When you’re looking for one that melts and melds with the patty, it’s the best choice. The shoestring fries don’t rise to the level of the burger, but they’re not bad, either.
What Houston needs now are more Trill Burgers locations to offload the issues of scarcity and long waits. If that happens, it may just be a matter of time before Houstonians ask, “In-N-Out what?” (Whataburger is probably still safe… for now.) — Phaedra Cook, editor and publisher
Honorable Mentions for Worthy Relocations
The Blind Goat, 8145 Long Point: Season three MasterChef winner Christine Hà’s original location of The Blind Goat was located in Bravery Chef Hall and a James Beard Award semifinalist for Best New Restaurant in America. It’s no longer there, and in February Hà reopened it as a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Spring Branch. The lofty, modern space is a far cry from the counter concept in the food hall and allows Hà the forum to not only continue offering customer favorites but also to expand her interpretations of classic Vietnamese comfort foods. Diners can still order signature dishes such Mom’s eggrolls and The Great Papaya salad – Hà’s take on gỏi du dủ khô bò with sweet beef jerky, grape tomato, roasted peanuts and sesame, honey and shrimp paste vinaigrette. New, larger-format dishes include Texas BBQ brisket fried rice with smoked brisket from neighboring Feges BBQ and crawfish and garlic noodles. Favorites include bánh khọt, mini crispy cakes made with turmeric and coconut milk that are topped with shrimp and scallion oil, and the phở-spiced roasted beef bone marrow served with toasted baguette slices, herbs and bean sprout salad.
The best part of The Blind Goat is the familiarity of the dishes. It’s like Mom’s but just a little bit different and just as good. Hà recently stepped away from Xin Chao, her restaurant near the Heights area, to concentrate on The Blind Goat and her sandwich concept Stuffed Belly. We hope this means even more great things to come. — Minh Truong, food writer
Street To Kitchen, 3401 Harrisburg: James Beard Award-winning Thai chef, Benchawan Painter, and her husband/business partner, Graham, recently moved their East End restaurant down the street. Street To Kitchen now occupies the former Café Louie space. Guests no longer need to squeeze between tables to move throughout the dining room, as the new restaurant is far more spacious. Painter still serves the same unapologetically authentically Thai cuisine. All of the Street to Kitchen favorites are still on the menu, such as krapow (stir-fried basil with choice of meat), pad thai, drunken noodles and a few types of curry.
Along with the new, bigger space comes the addition of Graham’s new cocktail program. There are a few specialty cocktails, such as the Frozen Thai Tea Toki-Yo, a Thai tea with coconut milk and Japanese whisky and The STK Old Fashioned with Basil Hayden Bourbon, turbinado sugar, and, intriguingly, Turkish tobacco. There are seasonal cocktails as well. Currently, those are Heaven and Hell, which will both be available through New Year’s. Heaven is a frozen cherry and key lime margarita, while Graham promises that Hell is “the spiciest margarita in Texas” thanks to the addition of Thai chiles and a spicy sal de gusano (agave worm salt) rim.
Additionally, Graham has expanded the wine list, now that there’s more storage space. It’s a worthy upgrade for one of Houston’s most acclaimed restaurants. — Ryan Kasey Baker, food and beverage writer
Wild Oats, 1222 Witte: This Texas-inspired restaurant from Underbelly Hospitality recently relocated to Spring Branch, next door to the second location of its sister concept Underbelly Burger. Fan-favorite menu staples such as Wagyu Chicken Fried Steak with jalapeño-bacon gravy, R-C Ranch Bavette, catfish and oyster po’boys and beef fajitas remain on the menu, but there now also several new dishes, including wild boar shanks braised in salsa verde with masa grits, Gulf seafood boil with blue crab, Gulf shrimp, snapper, chorizo, red potatoes, corn and garlic, and puffy tacos. Some of the recipes from the original menu have been tweaked, including the new-and-improved house chili, which is easily one of the best bowls of Texas chili in the Houston area.
Wild Oats has two outdoor patios as well as ample indoor seating in the main dining room or at the bar, which has multiple televisions mounted for catching all of your favorite sports. It features expertly crafted cocktails, beer and wine, with highlights including the Texas Old-Fashioned with bourbon, hickory-maple syrup and bitters, Tommy’s Margarita and refreshing Ranch Waters and Palomas. While it may not technically be a new restaurant, the beautiful new location, Texas hospitality and reimagined menu warrant a mention! — Mario-Sebastian Berry, associate editor
Honorable Mention For Excellent To-Go Fare
Gold Tooth Tony’s, 1901 North Shepherd: Chef-owner Anthony Calleo’s fast-casual takeout joint specializing in Detroit-style pizza opened in September and has quickly become a neighborhood favorite. Calleo, who formerly owned Pi Pizza and has consulted for a number of local bars and restaurants, adds his trademark creativity and attention to detail to the thick, square-cut, deep-dish pies cooked in a steel pan with buttery brick cheese, crispy edges and flavorful sauce poured over the top of a yeasty, sourdough-like crust.
Choose from traditional offerings of cheese, pepperoni and Margarita, as well as house specials such as Sebastian’s Big Idea with SPAM, togarashi roasted pineapple and furikake seasoning, Hunger Force with meatballs and whipped herbed-ricotta, and monthly collaborations, including this month’s Tony’s Bodega collaboration with Burger Bodega owner Abbas Dhanani. It’s a chopped cheese pie with melted American cheese, seasoned chopped halal beef, brick cheese blend, onions, peppers, smash-burger crumbles, pickles and Bodega Sauce. For non-pizza options, you can’t go wrong with the popular General Tso Wings, lasagna or the meatball sub with housemade, all-beef meatballs, marinara, garlic-basil spread and brick cheese. Gold Tooth Tony’s is open for lunch and dinner. — Mario-Sebastian Berry, associate editor