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The Hits of 2011

Our favorite new Houston restaurants.

The challenge in choosing ten of the best restaurants to open in Houston each year is a daunting one: Many of the restaurants I think are "the best" have little to nothing to do with each other, making for a list that falls all over the map when it comes to price, cuisine and location.

Then again, the amusing disjointedness represents Houston itself — as does the fact that three of last year's top ten best new restaurants no longer exist in the same incarnations (Caffe Bello, Umai and Bootsie's). Houston is nothing if not transitory, constantly tearing down and rebuilding itself over the years.

The challenge this year is trying to overcome that mutability — to select restaurants that I hope and believe will be around in the future — and to also choose restaurants that best represent our current Third Coast culinary climate and the bright direction in which it's headed. These ten restaurants are not only the best of a large group that has opened this year, they are what makes Houston such a fun and unique city to dine in. Dig in.

El Gran Malo makes the list for its house-infused tequilas and modern Gulf Coast Tex-Mex.
Troy Fields
El Gran Malo makes the list for its house-infused tequilas and modern Gulf Coast Tex-Mex.

Location Info

Map

Radical Eats

507 Westheimer Rd
Houston, TX 77006

Category: Restaurant > Tex-Mex

Region: Montrose

Xuco Xicana

2416 Brazos St.
Houston, TX 77006

Category: Restaurant > Mexican

Region: Montrose

El Gran Malo

2307 Ella
Houston, TX 77008

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: Heights

Mala Sichuan Bistro

9348 Bellaire
Houston, TX 77036

Category: Restaurant > Chinese

Region: Outer Loop - SW

Queen Vic Pub & Kitchen

2712 Richmond Ave.
Houston, TX 77098

Category: Restaurant > British

Region: Lower Shepherd-Kirby

TQLA

4601 Washington Ave.
Houston, TX 77007

Category: Restaurant > Mexican

Region: Heights

Brasserie 19

1962 W. Gray St.
Houston, TX 77019

Category: Restaurant > Belgian

Region: River Oaks

Coppa Ristorante Italiano

5555 Washington
Houston, TX 77007

Category: Restaurant > Italian

Region: Heights

Philippe

1800 Post Oak Blvd.
Houston, TX 77056

Category: Restaurant > French

Region: Galleria

Pondicheri

2800 Kirby Drive, B132
Houston, TX 77098

Category: Restaurant > Indian

Region: Lower Shepherd-Kirby

10. Radical Eats

A few years ago, it would have been unthinkable to me to place a vegan restaurant on any year-end best-of lists. But Radical Eats is about so much more than just vegan food: It's about bringing a healthy, relatively inexpensive dining option to a low-income neighborhood. It's about making the most out of local and seasonal produce sourced from all over the city. It's about taking a traditional Houston cuisine — Tex-Mex — and making it new again with a few vegan twists on old standards. Owner Staci Davis does all this and more in her remixed Northside Village taqueria. Oh, and did we mention that Sunday's vegan brunch is all-you-can-eat?

Honorable mention also goes to Green Seed Vegan's food truck for doing the same thing in its Third Ward neighborhood. I can't wait to see what becomes of owners Rodney Perry and Matti Merrell when they have a full-fledged restaurant of their own.

9. Xuco Xicana

Although the menu here is still inconsistent nearly a year after rebranding as Xuco Xicana (or El XX) and moving away from its former El Patio roots, Chef Jonathan Jones wows with dishes like his stunning Gulf Coast ceviche, which secured the No. 2 spot in this year's list of our 100 Favorite Dishes. The modern Tex-Mex joint also has our favorite wings in town right now, as well as our favorite torta. (Hint: The beef fajita torta is not only the most delicious dish currently on the menu, it's also one of the least expensive.) And while the restaurant doesn't always fire on all pistons, it's an exciting — if occasionally bumpy — ride into the future of modern Tex-Mex with wild and woolly Chef JJ at the helm.

8. El Gran Malo

Although it's tempting to compare and contrast El Gran Malo with Xuco Xicana, it would be folly. Because while both offer their own interpretations of modern Gulf Coast-style Tex-Mex cuisine, each is unique. What makes El Gran Malo all the more impressive is that its owners never intended the Heights-area "gastrocantina" to serve food — it was meant as a tequila bar first and foremost. The house-infused tequilas are stunning, to be sure, as there's absolutely nothing else like them in town. But equally impressive are the dishes like a massive torta-burger or Mexican Coca-Cola-braised pork belly tacos.

7. Mala Sichuan

Mala Sichuan represents a new direction for Chinatown, which is itself relatively new to Houston. "Old Chinatown" (now known, for better or worse, as EaDo) died out in the 1980s as rents rose in the buildings and strip malls east of downtown. New Chinatown — which could more appropriately be called Asia Town — cropped up around the same time in the much cheaper area around Beltway 8 and Bellaire Boulevard, and has been accumulating excellent restaurants, bakeries, coffeehouses and more over the years. Mala Sichuan is one of the new "second generation" restaurants that focused on serving authentic food (Sichuanese cuisine in this case) but with more Western elements like snappy service and an easy-to-decipher menu. Owner Cori Xiong's all-Sichuan team of chefs also ensures that nearly every dish to come out of the kitchen is a winner, from the ginger sauce-braised, softball-size pork meatballs to more exotic foods like the red chile oil-laced Couple's Lung Dish.

6. The Queen Vic Pub & Kitchen

A pattern among most of the restaurants on this list is that the food they're creating — be it Indian, Mexican, French or Italian — is markedly Texan. More specifically, it's influenced by the Third Coast/Gulf Coast trend that's starting to emerge in Houston, whereby more of our native foods and flavors are showcased across many different cuisines. In the case of The Queen Vic (which, it should be noted, opened late in 2010), Chef Shiva Patel shows off her Indian roots through English pub food with a Texan flair. Her creamed spinach and paneer-topped grilled Gulf oysters remains one of the dining highlights of my year. The Queen Vic is also notable for its strong cocktail and craft beer program, both of which are full of intelligent choices that complement the modern pub vibe.

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