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Underdogs and Juggernauts

The 10 best new restaurants of 2012.

Local Foods: The Renovator

Although it's a deli in every sense of the word, there is no such thing as a plain, boring roast beef, deli-style sandwich at Local Foods, the Rice Village restaurant from the owners of benjy's. Sure, you'll get spicy horseradish on that roast beef sandwich in the form of a tangy aioli. But you'll also get some of Local Foods' crunchy kale salad for your greens as well as a thick layer of curried cauliflower that elevates the entire sandwich from "quick lunch" to "experience." Ditto the egg salad sandwich, which takes boring boiled eggs and lights them up with the light musk of truffles under the sharp and salty bite of Parmesan cheese on a pretzel bun.

The pretzel buns come from the ovens of local baker Slow Dough Bread Co., and they epitomize most of Local Foods' offerings: They're all-local when possible — whether it's cheese from Pola, produce from Atkinson Farms, seafood from Texas Wild Gulf Shrimp or meat from Black Hill Ranch — or otherwise Texan. The short-and-sweet wine list features only a handful of choices — Duchman, Becker, McPherson and Pedernales among them. Aside from just wine, you can also find local beers on tap from breweries like Buffalo Bayou, Karbach and Southern Star. If you don't drink, try the Houston-made root beer from 8th Wonder Brewery.

Oxheart transforms vegetables into works of art.
Katharine Shilcutt
Oxheart transforms vegetables into works of art.
Underbelly is the hottest ticket in town.
Troy Fields
Underbelly is the hottest ticket in town.

It's this innovative commitment to stocking as many all-local products across the board that has endeared Local Foods to me, as well as the fact that it's treated another local piece of history with respect: The Antone's deli which used to house Local Foods has been thoughtfully repurposed into the sort of excellent sandwich shop that I think would do the old Antone's proud. Local Foods is clearly proud of its roots, too; you can still see timeworn inlay tiles bearing Antone's name as you cross the threshold.

Oxheart: The Ingenue

Although the name "Oxheart" can conjure up visions of bloody hunks of meat, of offal in hearty portions or animal entrails scored abbatoir-style, Oxheart itself is anything but dense, dark or heavy. Instead, the ethereal space — which seats only a demure 30-odd people — focuses more on seasonal produce and Gulf seafood than anything else, and employs the light-handed techniques chef Justin Yu learned while working abroad in Belgium and Denmark. There are only three tasting menus available each evening, and good luck walking in any night of the week to find an open seat.

Oxheart is coyly maddening, in the best sort of way. How does a place in which a team of sous chefs methodically plates dishes with tweezers manage to come off as completely and beguilingly carefree? How does a restaurant this young manage to display such an astonishing depth of maturity? And how do Yu and his wife Karen Man manage to transform such simple ingredients as squash or chard into otherworldly works of art? One thing is definitely certain: Houston has certainly never seen anything like it.

The Pass & Provisions: The Rogue

Why would a pair of talented young chefs leave promising careers in New York City to take a chance on Houston? Their friends back in the Big Apple must have surely thought Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan had gone off the reservation when the two best friends moved back to their hometown with nothing more than blind hope of securing their own restaurant one day.

The two men lived in a cramped Heights bungalow with their wives and dogs while they scoured for investors by day and cooked underground pop-up dinners by night, the buzz around the two chefs growing louder every day in 2011 and 2012. But success came with its own issues: The pair's Just August and Pilot Light dinner series were so popular that tickets sold out the day they were announced; they won a MasterMind award from the Houston Press, but the publicity caused their Pilot Light series to get shut down by the health department.

Finally, though, the pair were able to secure a restaurant. But true to their unique path,The Pass & Provisions isn't just a restaurant. It's two restaurants in one: Provisions, the far more casual side of the two-pronged approach, opened back in September. The Pass — which seats only a small, set number of people in one intimate seating per night — just opened a couple of weeks ago (so it's not ready for consideration on this year's list), yet it's already drawing rave reviews. When chef Marcus Samuelsson came to Houston in July, he promised great things from the two young chefs who'd once worked under him at Aquavit and August: "You're going to have a great restaurant in your community," Samuelsson said. So far, Siegel-Gardner and Gallivan are proving him right.

Roost: The Upstart

Roost is a restaurant that perfectly captures the current Houston culinary zeitgeist. No longer do our most celebrated chefs labor for years learning and perfecting standards and classics. These days, it's about returning to and exploring your roots as well as your passions — no matter where in the world they came from. It's the era of the young turks, where wandering chefs come home not to play by the rules but to create their own.

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