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Underdogs and Juggernauts

The 10 best new restaurants of 2012.

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If I had to pick one word to describe the mad, exciting rush of restaurant activity that's defined 2012, it would be this: exhilarating. Followed closely by: exhausting. Trying to keep up with every single new restaurant that's flung open its doors in exuberance — welcoming the city's burgeoning food scene with wide-open arms — has been nothing short of both.

And trying to choose a favorite from among the bevy of ground-breaking, inventive, adventurous and unique restaurants that have opened this year would be like trying to choose a favorite child. Each restaurant on the list is different — entirely different — from its counterparts, and that's what makes comparing and contrasting them all so difficult.

Which restaurant is the new standard-bearer for 2013?
Mai Pham
Which restaurant is the new standard-bearer for 2013?
Fun, bright ceviches at La Fisheria.
Troy Fields
Fun, bright ceviches at La Fisheria.

But it's also what makes Houston's dining scene the terrifically fun place it's become over the last year. No longer are we content to be known just for Tex-Mex, barbecue and burgers. In addition to our wonderful home-grown cuisines, we are now learning to celebrate our rich ethnic heritage and the keen, modern tastes of chefs determined to throw it all together with their own global influences in a way that can only be described as revolutionary for our city.

Our tastes and expectations are changing as a city. We are growing up, all of us together, and journeying into a new phase of dining. We want to support locally produced foodstuffs but we want a more international interpretation of our Houstonian culture and cuisine. We want our chefs to go away for a while, to learn new skills and hone their ideas, but we want them to come back and show it all off. We want modern techniques and flavors, but we want a casual and approachable dining experience.

And all ten of the restaurants on this list — as disparate as they may be — fit our new expectations and desires to a tee.

Guru Burgers & Crepes: The Underdog

Guru Burgers & Crepes has almost zero obligation to be good. Out here in Sugar Land, two types of restaurants thrive: big chains and tiny ethnic spots. There's very little in between that's noteworthy, but Guru Burgers is aiming to change that with an impressive and thorough devotion to its food and service that's rarely seen even in Houston proper.

That the little family-run place in Sugar Land Town Square is thriving is even more impressive considering how it could easily be quite terrible. Guru Burgers specializes in three items that are almost painfully trendy at the moment: gourmet burgers, craft beer and crepes. And any of these three could quickly go off the rails, but Guru Burgers' commitment to coming up with clever burger combinations and tracking down interesting craft beers from across the country instead makes it a destination much in the same way that burger fanatics make the trek down Westheimer to visit The Burger Guys. And while the crepes are only average right now, the pitch-perfect burgers and sweet, crispy beet chips more than make up for this minor deficit.

L'Olivier: The Phoenix

Along with restaurants like Artisans just down the street and Etoile Cuisine et Bar in Uptown Park, the chic and unfussy L'Olivier represents a renaissance of fine French dining in Houston after years of dormancy. The classics never die; they are simply reborn into former adult bookstores, transforming a once-shabby corner of Montrose into the type of place where you'll see River Oaks matrons rubbing elbows with hipsters who've walked over from their duplexes. And it's chef Olivier Ciesielski who's drawing them in.

Ciesielski, who helmed the kitchen at longtime favorite Tony's for a decade, was a fixture on the society and dining scene for years before his split from owner Tony Vallone. Interestingly, fans of both Ciesielski and Tony's don't seem to have chosen sides (Houstonians are nothing if not good at getting along with each other) and instead now flock to both Ciesielski's old and new restaurants. At his new home along with partner Mary Clarkson, Ciesielski turns out fine-tuned French standards in a cute, modern setting and keeps the menu from stagnating with completely un-French dishes like tropical ceviche with yuzu juice.

La Fisheria: The Swashbuckler

Tackling any other iteration of Mexican food besides Tex-Mex can be tough in a town like Houston. Only Hugo's — and, to a lesser extent, Otilia's — have been able to achieve long-term success in this area. But with the entry of Mexican chef Aquiles Chavez — he of the Jack Sparrow hair and mustache, he of the good-natured braggadocio and room-filling personality — and his quirky Mexican restaurant La Fisheria, that may all have changed.

Chavez makes modern, upscale Mexican food that's heavy on the coastal influences of his home state of Tabasco, in a Heights setting that's vacation-like and relaxing. Whether it intended to or not, the restaurant went the smart route by creating something that's the polar opposite of Hugo's and instead blazes its own boisterous path. La Fisheria's clean, bright ceviches and red snapper tostadas have already become favorites in the warmer months, while the duck-chorizo stew with mussels and a glass of bold Mexican red wine are what I'm craving these days for dinner. Cuchara, an even newer Mexican bistro in Montrose, is similarly taking its own tack with interior Mexican food and between the two places, Houston's Mexican dining scene has never seemed more promising or invigorated.

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