There’s no getting around it: Compared to the vibrancy of the past few years, the first half of 2016 lacked particularly noteworthy new restaurants. The best ones we’ve reviewed so far this year mostly opened in two batches at the end of 2015: one in October and another in December.
That’s likely because the first half of 2016 has been a difficult year thanks to rampant layoffs in the energy sector, an industry that’s still a huge driver of Houston’s economy. That means people who have historically had plenty of discretionary income for dining out don’t have it this year.
As a result, some restaurants have had to tighten their belts — or close. Bramble, which opened in July 2015, barely made it past the one-year mark before it succumbed to “the downfall in our economy,” according to a statement released by chef Randy Rucker. It seemed like another restaurant, The Durham House, hardly even had a chance. It opened in November 2015. The opening executive chef, Don Schoenburg, was replaced with Mike McElroy in January. By June 2016, just as it seemed the restaurant had found its footing, it closed.
Still, it’s not been a completely bad year for Houston restaurants and the particularly popular ones are still packed every night. Additionally, there are new, bright stars on the horizon.
The following are the places that have impressed us the most during reviews so far this year. To be eligible for consideration, the restaurant must have been reviewed between January 1 and July 31, 2016, and have opened no later than October 1, 2015. The reason for the carryover from the previous year is that a restaurant is not reviewed as soon as it opens. That way, it has some time to get its processes and menu smoothed out.
The 10 Best Restaurants Reviewed So Far in 2016
10. Uyghur Bistro, 9888 Bellaire Boulevard, #168
Despite occasionally disorganized service and unavailable menu items, Uyghur Bistro brings exciting cuisine from a unique region to Houston’s International District. Uyghur food incorporates a wide variety of spices and ingredients from different cultures thanks to its region’s proximity to the famous Silk Road trade route. At Uyghur Bistro, the results manifest in spicy, rough-hewn chunks of chicken laden with Szechuan peppercorns; smoky chunks of beef kebab rubbed in ground caraway, cumin seed and pepper flakes; and rustic wide noodles. Generous portions at reasonable prices mean Uyghur Bistro is great for groups of adventurous diners who like to share.
9. Pappa Charlie’s Barbecue, 2012 Rusk
Pitmaster Wesley Jurena was once limited to working out of a trailer behind a bar. Now he has a full-fledged restaurant of his own. Buy enough pork ribs so there are leftovers to take home. The balance of sweet, spicy and smoky is compelling. The daily specials, whether smoked meat loaf or big pork prime rib chops, are always well worth a try. Brisket and beef ribs are top-quality thanks to the fact that Jurena sources quality meat from 44 Farms in Cameron, Texas.
8. Republic Diner + Sojubang
Formerly Witchcraft Tavern, Republic Diner + Sojubang is one of the least buzzed-about of the newer restaurants in the Heights. However, its neighbors are well aware of the appeal, as evidenced by the mostly filled seats both inside and on the spacious patio on busy evenings. The Korean food, as guided by Delicious Concepts CEO Ken Bridge (who is half Korean himself), is absolutely legitimate. The wang galbi, a heaping $24 plate of sliced short ribs, is grilled to a lovely char, served in a hot cast-iron pan and accompanied by several dishes of banchan (a selection of small sides, including kimchi). Other traditional delights include excellent renditions of bulgogi, bibimbap and japchae. On the non-traditional side is the outstanding KO Burger, featuring a thick patty lightly glazed with teriyaki sauce and topped with cabbage kimchi and a fried egg.
7. The Burger Joint, 2703 Montrose
This little burger place with a spacious patio, located in the former Little Bigs spot, has proven itself a very worthwhile addition to Montrose’s dining scene. The burger patties are always perfectly cooked and juicy. It’s just fine to get a classic cheeseburger here, or take an adventurous route and aim for the kimchi burger topped with an egg, or the Mexi, with salty-sweet ham, lush avocado and prickly pickled jalapeño. The beefy hot dogs with snappy casings and toppings that include pulled pork and salty coleslaw are also winners. Since it’s open until midnight on weekdays and an incredible 4 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, The Burger Joint is also a much-needed late-night dining option.
6. State of Grace, 3258 Westheimer
Atlanta-based chef and restaurateur Ford Fry has landed on the list of James Beard semifinalists several times, and State of Grace is his first restaurant concept in Houston. Local chef Bobby Matos, who honed his skills at Tony Vallone’s Ciao Bello, heads up the kitchen. Fresh and raw seafood here is top-of-the-line, and the menu overall is a playful homage to Houston classics. State of Grace unexpectedly turns out terrific cheesy enchiladas “a la Felix” (a nod to former Tex-Mex mainstay Felix Mexican Restaurant), as well as a legitimate, saucy, Korean-style fried chicken. There’s a lot to love, but the value of the offerings is undercut somewhat by the loud, crowded environment.
5. Tejas Chocolate Craftory, 200 Elm, Tomball
Tejas Chocolate Craftory in Tomball has proven there’s a compatible relationship between chocolate and barbecue. The company first became known for making chocolate entirely from scratch, including roasting and grinding its own cacao beans. Since it uses a wood-fired smoker to roast the beans, it only made sense to start making barbecue, too. The result is a destination-worthy barbecue place that excels in juicy, briny turkey breast, tender pork ribs and remarkable pastrami, the burnt ends of which end up like “meat truffles” and are delightful served on their own. Chocolate is used as an ingredient in the mole barbecue sauce and is exceptional with brisket.
4. Bernadine’s, 1801-B North Shepherd
Any doubts about Graham Laborde’s first gig as executive chef of his own restaurant have long been put aside. His Louisiana upbringing, as well as his deep love for and knowledge of Gulf Coast cuisine, has served him — and Houston diners — quite well. There’s an exquisite raw oyster program that features both Gulf and East Coast appellations to indulge in before segueing into a comforting Southern meal that avoids typical country-fried classics. Actually, some of Laborde’s dishes are worthy of being deemed “new classics,” such as the crispy cochon de lait au presse (pressed suckling pig) with dirty farro, sautéed Swiss chard and Creole mustard vinaigrette. One traditional classic not to miss is the Creole-style gumbo, made with smoked duck stock and filled with duck meat, oysters and andouille.
3. Hunky Dory, 1801 North Shepherd
It would have just been a shame if, after Feast closed, Richard Knight had packed his bags and left Houston. Fortunately, he stuck around — literally, for years — while the Treadsack Group built Hunky Dory to showcase his talents. (Treadsack also owns Bernadine’s, above, which is next door.) Hunky Dory is by no means a clone of Feast, but Knight’s uniquely British stamp on the food — and commitment to putting as much of an animal as possible to good use — is indelible. Where else in Houston can people find black pudding in crispy pastry with onions and apples? (Speaking of puddings, it’s a grave error not to try the best sticky toffee pudding in town for dessert.) Best of all might be the surprises, like the fact that Hunky Dory makes one of Houston’s most succulent double-patty cheeseburgers. Go figure.
2. La Table, 1800 Post Oak
It’s amazing the difference a change in ownership can make. The group behind L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon transformed the staid Table On Post Oak into the kind of restaurant that Houston needs. The city has never suffered for excellent food, but service standards have long lagged behind those in other major culinary destinations. The service at La Table is outstanding without being stuffy — and the food is excellent, too. The restaurant also manages to pull off a tricky, multiservice concept with ease. Dine like royalty at Château upstairs on surprisingly affordable rack of lamb or whole chicken carved tableside or linger downstairs at the more casual Marché. People on the run can grab a beautiful pastry and coffee to go from the bakery counter. Somehow, the collection of beautifully bound and printed Assoline books for sale doesn’t seem out of place, either.
1. Foreign Correspondents, 4721 North Main
Treadsack Group decided to open three restaurants within months of each other. For a small, independent restaurant group, that’s almost an unthinkable risk, not to mention incredibly costly. It was, however, the right bet, and Hunky Dory, Bernadine’s and Foreign Correspondents are already important parts of Houston’s dining landscape.
In fact, Bon Appétit just named Foreign Correspondents one of 50 nominees for its “Hot 10: Best New Restaurants in America 2016” list — and for good reason. It presents an entirely new take on Thai food. The focus straddles the line between authentic cuisine from northern Thailand and the conscientious use of local ingredients. It’s not an unexpected point of view on the part of chef P.J. Stoops, who not only worked for years as a fishmonger in Houston but also lived for a time in Thailand, where he met his wife, Apple. The herbs and greens, like the water celery, rice patty herb, fish mint and sweetleaf used in the pak grawp, or crispy fried herbs appetizer, are grown locally by a Cambodian farmer. Other amazing Texas-meets-Thailand matchups include the makrut lime curry, which incorporates whatever Gulf Coast fish is fresh and accessible that day.
Four Houston Restaurants To Watch in 2016
Despite difficulties in the market, there are some new restaurants that have shown some promise. While they have not been open long enough to be reviewed, each has great potential.
Rise No. 2, 1700 Post Oak
This second location of a casual French concept that started in Dallas specializes in soufflés, both savory and sweet, as well as an excellent, reasonably priced wine list that focuses on both France and California. There’s an Alice In Wonderland feel to this second-story eatery at BLVD Place, thanks in no small part to a menagerie of whimsical creatures made of metal and wood, innovative serving tools, antique silver and an abundance of handwoven fabrics — all of which are not only put to use during service but also for sale. Cheese and chocolate soufflés alike are utterly decadent, and the signature “marshmallow soup,” a tomato-carrot bisque with mini cheese soufflés standing in for the marshmallows, is a can’t-miss dish.
Arthur Ave, 1111 Studewood
Will lightning strike twice? That’s the question concerning the second restaurant from Helen Greek Food & Wine owner Sharif Al-Amin, chef William Wright and designer Erin Hicks. Helen, the brainchild of sommelier Evan Turner, who spent part of his childhood in Greece, brought seasonally driven Greek cuisine to Houston. Arthur Ave’s aim is to bring the Italian-American cuisine of New York to the Bayou City. Is that as ground-shaking an idea? It’s too early to say, but the Sunday gravy — that meat-laden red sauce that is the traditional end-of-week celebratory ritual of Italian-Americans — is incredibly soulful.
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Ritual, 602 Studewood
Ritual, with a meat program helmed by Felix Florez of Black Hill Ranch, got off mostly on the right foot during two early-look visits. It’s in the former El Cantina Superior space and, like its predecessor, is managed by Delicious Concepts, the same company behind Pink’s Pizza and Republic Diner + Sojubang. Meaty, hearty dishes such as the spicy, deep-fried chicken and waffle rendition called Angry Bird and an extensive craft beer list are promising, but as mentioned previously, there’s already a new executive chef. Early chef shuffles tend to cast a shadow of uncertainty, so it’s going to take some time to figure out if this major change in the kitchen will have any impact.
Killen’s Burger, 2804 South Main, Pearland
There are times when it seems that Ronnie Killen of Killen’s Steakhouse and Killen’s Barbecue can do no wrong, but it’s fair to say that this ambitious burger spot has its own challenges. We loved the look and flavor of the ten-ounce cheeseburger so much that it was chosen for the main photo of our recent “Building Houston’s Perfect Cheeseburger” cover story. Cooked medium rare, the blend of chuck and brisket is exquisitely drippy. Unfortunately, when it comes to burgers, it’s hard to please everyone, and many people order theirs medium, medium-well or even well done, which causes the patty to lose a lot of its magic. Medium-rare is the way to go.