By now, you know the “whos” and “wheres” of our Best Of awards, but here are the “whys” behind some of the biggest categories. As always, there were many worthy contenders and the decisions were quite difficult. That is as it should be. Houston needs excellent, ambitious restaurants to continue propelling us down the path that made us the No. 1 city for foodies in 2015 according to Travel & Leisure.
Weeks ahead of publication time, the Houston Press food and beverage writers engage in a behind-the-scenes nomination process for the people and places they think should win. Writers and editors may issue challenges to those picks and the nominating party is obligated to defend the choice.
The Press editors validate the final selections and ensure all categories are covered. One last fact-check just before publication of the Best Of issue ensures that places are still open and that people still have the same roles.
Here are the thought processes behind three of the most-coveted, controversial categories: Best Chef, Best New Restaurant and Best Bar.
The choice for Best Chef must be someone who is actively working to improve the quality of the food scene in Houston and its surrounding areas. This year, we selected chef Austin Simmons of Hubbell & Hudson Bistro, Hubbell & Hudson Kitchen and Cureight for his ambition and courage in bringing sophisticated, high-end fare to The Woodlands.
Simmons was the protégé of nationally-recognized chefs Dean Fearing and John Tesar, working under both at the Michelin-starred Mansion On Turtle Creek in Dallas. He worked under Tesar again in The Woodlands before his mentor abruptly left his eponymous restaurant after a mere 11 months. Simmons took his talents down the street to Hubbell & Hudson Bistro.
In the fall of 2014, the Hubbell & Hudson grocery store that the bistro was attached to closed for good and as a result, the bistro itself had to close to undergo remodeling. It reopened a few months later but then had to fight off the perception that it, like the grocery store, was closed.
Despite that, Simmons decided to start a new project called Cureight. The ambitious tasting menu concept is a “restaurant within a restaurant” nestled inside of the bistro next to the kitchen. That whole “restaurant inside of another establishment” idea doesn’t always work, but in this case, it does.
At the same time, Simmons shepherded Hubbell & Hudson along a track of continuous improvement. He extensively researched dry aged beef programs and now offers 60-day aged Akaushi and 100-day aged Black Angus.
Simmons is determined, ambitious, curious, talented and painfully honest. (You’ll find Patagonian Toothfish on the menu, not the misnomer of “Chilean Sea Bass,” thank you very much.) He doesn’t want Hubbell & Hudson to be considered a good restaurant “in The Woodlands”. He intends for it to be considered among the best in the United States. Restaurants don’t fly on force of will alone, but Simmons’ intensity sure makes a good propeller.
Best New Restaurant
Oporto Fooding House, Rick Di Virgilio and Shiva Patel’s understated Midtown gem consistently delivers sophisticated dining experiences. The flavorful Portuguese and South American food is like a love match between the original Oporto and Queen Vic Pub.
We applied two major requirements to the Best New Restaurant category: it had to have opened in 2015 and had to have earned a great review. Oporto Fooding House easily met both of those requirements.
That criteria also ensured our pick was past its wobbly-leg stage—the time when a restaurant is still getting its menu settled, schedule set and processes running smoothly.
The first criteria—of opening in 2015—excluded restaurants like Pax Americana, Killen’s Barbecue, Caracol and BCN Taste & Tradition. While remarkable, those restaurants aren’t really “new” anymore (and besides that, they were already ranked in our Best New Restaurants of 2014 list.)
The latter requirement excluded places that opened in the late summer, such as Helen, Bramble, SaltAir, MF Sushi and Southern Goods. While already showing a great deal of promise, all were too new to be officially reviewed.
In the end, it came down between two restaurants: Oporto Fooding House and Peska Seafood Culture. Both have amazing food and drinks. Oporto nudged ahead based on consistency—both in food and service—and overall value.
Peska isn’t walking away empty-handed, though. The amazing selection of hard-to-find, exquisite fresh seafood and fish easily lands our award for Best Seafood Restaurant.
There were many worthy contenders for Best Bar, including Public Services Wine & Whisky, Johnny’s Gold Brick, Wooster’s Garden, Julep, Bad News Bar and perennial favorite Anvil Bar & Refuge. Moving Sidewalk was ultimately selected as the bar that has done the most this year to push forward and define what, exactly, constitutes a quality cocktail in Houston.
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It’s not a fancy place and it doesn’t serve food. Instead, it directs all of the focus to a single goal—making better cocktails. Temperature, quality ingredients and water content are some of the factors that have to be controlled in order to produce a great cocktail. The staff at Moving Sidewalk (including co-owner and highly respected bartender Alex Gregg) always seems to be asking, “How can we improve these individual factors to achieve a greater whole?” It doesn't hurt one bit that the owners are Ryan Rouse and Brad Moore, who, as longtime Houston bar and restaurant owners (Big Star Bar, Grand Prize Bar and The Honeymoon, among others) understand the issues.
Gregg tends to fixate on individual topics, evangelize them and then the whole Houston bar community ends up benefiting from his research. During his time with Goro & Gun, he extolled the virtues of highballs, which now show up in their own category on other Houston drink lists.
The imperfection of cloudy ice annoyed him until he (along with former bartender Aaron Lara) solved it by making their own perfectly clear cubes, spears (for tall Collins glasses) and slow-melting spheres (for straight shots where little dilution is desired). That capability evolved into a company called Ice Age, which sells the same type of ice to other bars so they have an equal opportunity to up their cocktail game. The most recent cocktail menu at Moving Sidewalk was a foray into bottled cocktails and carbonation and his "simple" syrups tend to not be so simple, taking advantage of regional ingredients like piloncillo sugar.
It’s done without a smidgen of snobbery. When a bar uses the movie Point Break as the summer menu inspiration and give drinks names like “Tyler’s Wetsuit’ and “Babes,” how serious can it be? Underneath the goofy inspirations, though, is some mad science. The nitro-chilled cocktails from the first menu have run their course and the Point Break summer menu is about to disappear right along with the warm weather. The fall drink list comes out this week and while we have no idea what Gregg and company will have up their sleeves this time, we know they’re getting ready to take us on another adventure.