It's Worth Getting Sloppy For This Grilled Cheese Taco
Exploring Houston’s mosaic of cultures through refined small plates and shareables
Opening its doors in May of 2018, chef Chris Shepherd’s new spot is a hot take on the now defunct Underbelly, telling the story of Houston food without the self-imposed restrictions of nose-to-tail cooking. Now in a different, smaller space on Westheimer with chef de cuisine Nick Wong (formerly of New York’s Momofuku Ssäm Bar) manning the kitchen, this evolution of Underbelly continues UB’s mission of showboating Houston’s diversity. Share plates of duck egg curry, crispy rice salad, and queso fundido made with blood sausage and pork fat tortillas; or try Sunday’s dim sum-style brunch, which brings turkey neck molotes, wild boar gyoza, and smoked trout hash browns into the mix. When you’re done, take Shepherd’s suggestion and use this as a jump-off point, paying a future visit to the inspirations listed on the leaflet you get with your check.
A roof-to-table concept offering no-fuss dining from day to night
Houston native Benjy Levit has transformed the former benjy’s on Washington into this effortless neighborhood spot (fans of benjy’s need not fret, the Rice Village location remains in operation). Here, classic dishes are elevated and properly executed all day long, from Old World favorites like matzo ball soup and crème fraiche-kissed pelmeni dumplings to nostalgic diner favorites like grilled cheese with kosher salami and Sunday-only grandma-style meatballs. To get the real diner feel, grab one of the swivel seats in front of the open kitchen, and tack on a Sidecar while you’re at it.
A star chef collaboration playing with grill, smoke, and fire
From bestselling cookbook author and lifestyle expert Ayesha Curry (and celebrity chef Michael Mina), this San Francisco-born dining concept opened in CityCentre in July. While you can’t fully trust the Yelp reviews just yet (go Rockets!), you can trust that former Riel star and executive chef E.J. Miller will bring the heat with a myriad of open-flame grilling techniques and worldly spices. Go for double duck wings kissed with jerk seasoning and sticky mango; dreamy burrata with a smoke dome unleashed before your eyes; an Indian fish fry with spice-crusted snapper, turmeric pickles and a cooling raita; and St. Louis cut smoked pork ribs done in three styles: American BBQ, Mexican Adovada, and Korean Gochujang. Do yourself a favor and finish with brown butter cake.
Bringing “Viejun” cuisine to the former Bacchus space
You may have caught chef Nikki Tran’s viral appearance in the Houston episode of Ugly Delicious, when David Chang traveled to Vietnam and spoke to Tran about her Houston-influenced restaurant in Saigon. Well now Tran has done the reverse, bringing the flavors of Saigon back to Houston and wrapping Vietnamese and Cajun elements so tightly that it's resulted in a new cuisine all together, one she dubs “Viejun.” Alongside a roster of pho from dry-style chicken to flaming filet mignon, you’ll find standouts like the Seafood Viejun, a mess of shrimp, clams, snow crab, and mussels smothered in Tran’s Cajun-spiced garlic and butter that is worth ruining your shirt over.
A worldly kaleidoscope of high-end fare and cocktails in an unpretentious atmosphere
Over in the Washington Avenue Art District’s Sawyer Yards, Poitín is the brainchild of restaurateur and Dublin native Ian Tucker (who also owns Balls Out Burger). Tucker embraces his immigrant spirit with the help of Dominick Lee (former sous chef at Kiran’s), executing a menu with influences from Houston to the culinary capitals of the world. Treat yourself to housemade hummus with lamb neck and za’atar, whole fried fish in sweet and spicy chili sauce, and 72-hour Texas short rib. Or for an even more laidback experience, get boxty cakes Benedict and the blueberry buttermilk pancakes during weekend brunch.
World-renowned sushi with polished service and a local spin
Time to stop saying Houston goes unnoticed, because we now have ourselves our very own Nobu (sup De Niro?). Open on the second floor of the former Saks Fifth Avenue in The Galleria, this HTX edition combines restaurant signatures like the miso black cod and jalapeño yellowtail sashimi with Houston-inspired dishes and cocktails. Take, for instance, the Sakura Smoking Pot with cherry blossom-smoked Japanese A5 Wagyu. Or the emphasis on locally sourced fish, as seen in specials like the Gulf red snapper tempura. Expect to crack your wallet wide open for this buzzy, high-end experience, and crack it open even further if you want the omakase.
Italian shareables with goods picked fresh from its garden
In early 2014, Revival Market's Ryan Pera and Morgan Weber brought us this fresh-from-the-garden restaurant that puts a welcome spin on traditional Italian foods. Think arancini and house charcuterie, whole-roasted fish, flawlessly executed cacio e pepe & oxtail sugo, and bubbling, wood-fired pies. Three years later, this ticket is still hot as ever. The bad news is, it still doesn’t take reservations. The good news is, you can sip on a few of Weber’s classically inspired tinctures while you wait.
An eight-part tasting experience that will have you driving to the Woodlands
It’s no surprise that this intimate tasting restaurant has no problems keeping its 25-seat chef’s table packed. Chef Austin Simmons changes up his über-sophisticated eight-courser weekly to keep things exciting, but you can expect gloriousness in the form of fresh, sustainable fish, dry-aged meat, and deliciously creative desserts that will have you happy you drove to The Woodlands.
Classy Mediterranean fare with a blowout all-Hellenic wine list
With both the highly respected chef William Wright and sommelier Evan Turner in the house, this no longer NKOTB and big brother to Helen in the Heights will flip the switch on everything you thought you knew about Greek food. Game changers like the massive pork shoulder, build-your-own gyro plate, and the second-largest Hellenic wine list in the US ensure you’re in for way more than a simple meal -- especially now that they’re offering brunch. The unfamiliar wine list offers recommendations like “I know this is technically terrible to say but this wine will make you forget how awful your relatives are.” Though if you need more help than that, Turner and his staff are more than eager to recommend stunners to suit your tastes.
Putting Houston barbecue on the map since 2014
Killen's Barbecue, along with its three follow-up concepts, covers all the bases of Texas’ Holy Trinity of meat: Smoke, Burgers, and Steaks (oh, and Smoke & Steaks). At the Pearland barbecue temple, King of 'Q Ronnie Killen and his team pump out over 2,000 pounds of smoked meat per day. To say that his unctuous, Bronto-sized beef ribs are great is an understatement. But you’ll be sorry if you skip out on things like the tender bone-in pork belly, 24-hour brined fried chicken, and beautifully marbled American wagyu gold-smoked brisket from Snake River Farms. Last year, the smokehouse extended its hours to 8pm Sunday-Thursday and 9pm Friday-Saturday, though you’ll want to show up early if you want first dibs.
Chic French eatery offering a four levels of dining
At the end of 2015, the former Table on Post Oak was given a facelift -- and maybe some botox, teeth-whitening, and major body sculpting, too. The rebranded spot now offers four types of service: elegant, four-star dining at The Chateau; casual eats at the cozy Marche; private dining at Privee; and coffee & pastries at their French-inspired Macaron bakery. Ostensibly, La Table is a one-stop-shop to experience all the elements of French cuisine. Get classic poached pear tarts and smoked duck brioche that taste just as good as they look; power lunch with towering caramelized cheese soufflés and tuna niçoise; or go wild with Parmesan-crusted rack of lamb and double-pound rib eye for two.
A proper Texas steakhouse that is equal parts flavor and class
With two Houston locations at which you can fashion a lobster bib out of your fancy cloth napkin (Downtown and Galleria), this homegrown steakhouse is the place to bring anyone you want to impress (although, if that’s the case, maybe don’t do that lobster bib thing). But you really should come here for the steaks, which are butchered and aged in-house using a more than 28-day dry process that concentrates the flavors and makes the beef so incredibly excellent that you’ll want to save all your change to come back for more. Don’t miss the stellar wine program, or the whiskey cart, which houses selections cherry-picked by Anvil alum and bar director Matt Tanner.
A two-faced restaurant with some of the most thoughtful eats in the city
Two-faced in the best way possible, The Pass & Provisions in Montrose offers you a choice between a more refined experience or a more relaxed one. The Pass will serve you polished tasting menus over a white tablecloth; earlier this year, the team revamped the format to provide a more approachable, fluid dining experience with a supplemental five-course tasting menu as opposed to its former nine-course experience. While on the other side, Provisions will provide hearty pizzas, pastas, and shared bistro plates in more rustic surroundings. Some serious cocktail and wine programs push the two restaurants to the next level, as does Julia Child's Muppet voice playing on repeat in the unisex bathroom.
Melting pot eats from the hearth with an oyster room, to boot
Atlanta restaurateur and Houston native chef Ford Fry has brought his culinary magic back home with this modern, globally and coastally inspired lodge. Here, executive chef Bobby Matos mans the kitchen (and the giant, wood-fired hearth) as it pumps out things like Thai curry Spanish octopus, wild boar Bolognese and duck carnitas for two (next to a seriously excellent oyster program). Considering it also offers an egg-topped butter burger and cream cheese-frosted cinnabuns at brunch, you’re going to want to get here.
Your significant other wants you to take them here, trust us
This Austin import has become a local standby thanks to a sophisticated, upbeat spirit that is wholly Houston. Even sushi traditionalists will be tempted by the razor sharp cuts with funky, outside-the-box adornments and dishes that run the gamut from pork belly tataki to foie nigiri. If you’re having trouble deciding, go for the 10-course chef’s tasting. It may have been around for a while now, but this sultry spot’s not leaving the hot list anytime soon.
Old Town Spring
A husband-and-wife duo making the perfect marriage of meat and smoke
Fresh off snagging the No. 7 spot in Texas Monthly's 50 Best Barbecue Joints in the State, this hometown hero is well worth the quick trip out of the loop. The cult favorite started with humble beginnings in a no-frills pink-and-black trailer, co-owned by married all-stars Will and Nichole Buckman. Today, the slightly bigger pink-and-black brick & mortar remains just as humble. With a silky, perfectly rendered cap and crusty, blackened bark, the moist brisket here is one of the finest BBQ specimens in Houston. Get to Old Town Spring to blissfully destroy some, alongside stupendously blistered ribs, overloaded taters, and snappy pork sausage.
Reenergized Asian food with Houston soul
Though its striking roof and high-ceilinged space give off a tranquil vibe, the food at this newcomer is anything but. The restaurant is the first Houston project from controversial Top Chef alum Pau Qui; though it’s chef de cuisine Gabriel Medina, a hometown hero known for stints at Kata Robata and Soma Sushi, who runs the day-to-day operations and helps dream up and execute big, bold flavors in the kitchen. Those who choose to dine here will travel to Southeast Asia via kamayan or “hand-to-mouth” bites like the Singapore hot chili crab and fried bao; dig into “perfect bites” -- literally bite-sized puffs, cakes, dumplings, and toasts made for one; and/or bring some friends to share tom yam noodles, grilled octopus adobo, and the star of the evening: a succulent, crispy skin lechón served with Filipino pork liver sauce. Another show stealer? Anything from pastry chef Jillian Bartolome.
Ronnie Killen’s first in-the-loop establishment shows us all what we’ve been missing
Part smokehouse, part live-fire steakhouse, this relaxed space from revered local chef Ronnie Killen took over the former Bramble spot at the end of 2016. After a half dozen months of success, Killen tapped Graham Laborde (previously of Bernadine’s) as operations chef for all Killen’s restaurants, thanks to his serious seafood savvy and fine-dining skills. Now you can mix and match delicious menu items, including pecan smoke-kissed pork belly, rendered and glistening with cherry habanero glaze; roasted corn ravioli swimming in a corn milk you’ll most certainly be spooning up; grilled Gulf snapper dripping in a crawfish butter you’ll also be scooping up; and specials like a massive (and intensely seared) long bone-in wagyu rib eye special that clocks in at 48 ounces. Maybe share that one. You’ll want bacon tres leches bread pudding for dessert.
Old-school Chinatown gets some new school flavor in the form of a Korean soju joint
Mike Tran -- the genius behind all the Chinatown faves, including Mein, Tiger Den and Night Market -- brought the heat with his latest venture. This time, a Koreatown club vibe adds extra spice to his concepts’ always crowd-pleasing menu. Sip late night soju from a watermelon keg (seriously) while you share small plates that are downright addicting, including but not limited to, crispy skin pork rinds, sweet and spicy Korean fried chicken, and a cheesy riff on creamed corn that is an absolute must for the table.
Game-changing restaurant switching up concepts every year for five years
Houston’s coolest restaurant isn’t really a restaurant. It’s five of ‘em. The game changer from local hero chef Chris Shepherd literally changes what it is once a year for five years. First up was One Fifth Steak, under the careful direction of the incredibly talented chef de cuisine Nick Fine (if you missed the Wagyu beef fat candles, chef-calls-it Ballers Board and flawlessly executed steaks, have no fear, you just may see them again at the upcoming Georgia James). Up next, it was One Fifth Romance Language, inspired by French, Spanish, and Italian fare and with a gone-too-soon duck heart bolognese that the city is still collectively mourning. One Fifth Mediterranean opened its doors September 1 and lasts through July 31, 2019, shifting the focus to the foods of Greece, Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, and the Middle East.
Stylish spot showing off a global palate
Manitoba born chef Ryan Lachaine (Underbelly, Reef) named his solo stint after Louis Riel, the founder of his native province. You’ll see Canadian influences, as well as traces of Lachaine’s Ukrainian heritage speckled throughout his unpretentious menu offerings, which get fired off from a showstopping open kitchen. Even the lowly beet is elevated at the Montrose stunner. It comes in the form of a velvety, bright magenta borscht that’s perfectly tart and kissed with some smooth crème fraîche. The simple Redneck Cheddar and potato pierogi are highlights as well (despite the fact that they actually serve as a side for an incredible hanger steak, along with perfectly-balanced horseradish cream). Of course, Lachaine’s Third Coast background also shines, especially through dishes like Gulf fish karaage and kimchi-laced tempura cauliflower.
Constantly refreshed plates proving simple can be spectacular
James Beard Award winner Justin Yu may have shut down the highly revered Oxheart in 2017, but he wasn’t done with the space inside the historic Erie City Iron Works building. No longer confined by strict tasting menus, Theodore Rex (named after Yu’s nephew, Teddy) shows off a playful new look, new chef de cuisine (Jason White) and new a la carte menu, setting the tone for a new kind of dining -- one that mesmerizes with simple plates of pan con tomate and cauliflower braised in Bordelaise sauce in the same way as it does with hearty mains like the Texas wagyu roast strip. Note: The menu will change often due to “availability, quality, and boredom,” so come prepared.
Masterful Oaxacan flavors in the heart of Downtown
In 2017, Houston’s most deserving chef, Hugo Ortega, finally earned a James Beard Award after being a proverbial bridesmaid for five years running. That’s thanks in part to his latest concept, the sleek Oaxacan paradise that is Xochi. There, a labyrinth of moles (from the deep and earthy to the smooth and mellow) muddle with unexpectedly pleasing touches like chicatanas and chapulines (that’s ants and grasshoppers, by the way). Just as thoughtful are the house-made masa preparations showcasing endless types of corn and topped off with wood-roasted octopus, roasted pork rib and chorizo ismeño; as wells as homemade chocolate desserts from Hugo’s pastry chef brother, Ruben. Drinks come from the masterful Sean Beck, who’s built a wonderful library of agave-focused cocktails and interesting wines to pair with it all.
A Chinese dim sum teahouse gone over-the-top (in a good way)
Locals take notice when a London import with a Michelin star makes its way to town, which is why Yauatcha has been one of the hottest tickets around since opening its doors in the luxury Jewel Box building this spring. The Chinese dim sum teahouse offers a more upscale experience than pretty much all of the city’s other dim sum concepts, and although that experience comes with an uptick in price, many find shelling out the extra cash totally acceptable. Unwind over delicate, artful preparations of classics from scallop shui mai dressed with silky orange tobiko caviar to a matcha and yuzu tart that is just as tasty as it is beautiful.
Global riffs on French traditions with a bright open kitchen that takes center stage
The Heights got a French infusion thanks to this chef-driven neophyte, set in former Black & White space on Studewood. The eclectic restaurant is the culmination of a 20-year dream for chef Manuel Pucha (formerly La Table), showcasing French cuisine with touches from Pucha’s rich Ecuadorian heritage. It’s a family affair, here, with co-owners and brothers Victor (pastry chef) and Cristian (front of house) getting into the mix. Dine on sophisticated classics -- bouillabaisse, wagyu frites with béarnaise, canard confit -- alongside unexpected jewels like the Ecuadorian shrimp ceviche, Peruvian tiradito, and ponzu crab.