Trying to select only 10 restaurants out of the dozens that have opened the past year is agonizing. In a good way, of course -- Houston has been fertile ground for innovative and passionate restaurateurs this year. But agonizing nevertheless.
There are restaurants that have opened in the past 12 months that have quickly shuttered, leaving me broken-hearted (Sabetta, I'm looking at you). There are smaller restaurants that have opened and captured my heart, and certainly deserve honorable mention on this list (BB's Beef & Hot Dog, Honduras Mayan, Sheba Cafe, Conscious Cafe, Pappa Geno's). And then there are restaurants for which I have great hopes, but which are too new to be included so far (Piola, Zimm's Little Deck, Casablanca, Cafe Espana, Tango & Malbec).
With that said, here are my choices for the best new restaurants of 2010, ranked -- also agonizing -- from No. 10 all the way down to the No. 1 spot.
All were chosen because of how well they reflect Houston's current culinary landscape and how they're shaping the future of food in our city. They all represent something undertaken with great hope -- often with equally great amounts of innovation and ingenuity -- and great quality of character, character that's most present in the dishes and ingredients themselves.
Here's hoping they'll all still be wowing us in 2011 and beyond.
10. Arpi's Phoenicia Deli 12151 Westheimer, 281-558-0416
The opening of Arpi's represented the next step for the visionary Tcholakian family, who founded the original Phoenicia Deli on what was then a quiet stretch of Westheimer in 1983. Almost 30 years later, the Tcholakians are overseeing a growing empire of grocery stores that import food from all over the world (yes, stores plural -- the second Phoenicia is slated to open downtown very shortly) as well as this new restaurant, just around the corner from the gargantuan Phoenicia. Inside, the Tcholakians will change the way you think about cafeteria lines, with wonderfully fresh and healthy options served in an array of sizes -- it's basically a giant mezze platter, with all the vivid flavors and scents that accompany the Middle Eastern cuisine. And on the non-cafeteria side of the restaurant, relax with an espresso and a cup of gelato before you tackle the business of filling your shopping cart next door. It's a no-brainer tag-team way to spend an afternoon.
Love or hate the Cordua and Vallone families, there's absolutely no denying the culinary impact they've had on this city. There's also no denying that both know how to successfully run restaurants and train chefs, especially young chefs who later go on to achieve great acclaim of their own. The new Americas in River Oaks and Caffe Bello in Montrose show the old guards' willingness -- even enthusiasm -- to adapt to the times and capture increasingly younger diners, without turning their backs on the patrons that have made them a success over the years.
8. The Barbed Rose 113 E. Sealy, Alvin, 281-585-2272
This steakhouse in Alvin was a bit of a novelty when it opened -- after all, the restaurant introduced itself to the world via YouTube videos -- and big city folks wondered how a fancy place like the Barbed Rose would ever make it in small-town Alvin. In only six months, Chef Jason Chaney and his team at the Barbed Rose have shown their mettle, showcasing fresh Gulf seafood and other local ingredients in dishes like country-fried oysters with house-made bacon. They even have a great wine program to boot, which is why the place is packed nearly every night -- with locals and with people who've made the drive out to Alvin.
7. Samba Grille 530 Texas, 713-343-1180
You have to love the spirit that encouraged Nathan Ketcham to open Samba Grille -- a Brazilian steakhouse with a twist -- in a location that's notorious for stale, boring restaurants that either close up quickly or stick around for far too long. Bayou Place has a breath of fresh air in Samba, which turns out fabulous churrascaria meals at the same time as beautiful dishes like the steak tartare shown above and even one of the city's tastiest burgers (thank Ketcham's determination to obtain the best meat possible for all three triumphs). The wine and spirits program run by Marc Borel is equally stunning, featuring rare South American vintages that don't cost an arm and a leg. Diners looking for a quality meal pre- or post-theater don't need to look any farther than Samba Grille.
6. The Burger Guys 12225 Westheimer, 281-497-4897
Speaking of quality meat, The Burger Guys are to be commended for their use of incredibly rich and juicy Akaushi beef in their burgers, not to mention the other local ingredients they source: Hatterman's eggs, Dairymaids cheese, even Saint Arnold beer. Nearly everything is made fresh and in-house here, even the sauces, and the drinks in the soda fountain contain no HFCS. These things should give you at least a little peace of mind as you gorge on a drippy, oozy cheeseburger the size of a toddler's head. Of course, if you add one of the Guys' signature milkshakes to the mix, you're done for. But in the best possible way.
5. Umai 8400 Bellaire, 713-750-9222
It's in a nearly vacant strip center on the quiet end of Chinatown. It's a Japanese restaurant that doesn't serve sushi. Umai's determination on both of these fronts is brave and refreshing, as the elegant little restaurant continues on its path toward showing Houston that Japanese food is more than just California rolls. Any Texan will adore the giant bento boxes for lunch (or dinner) that feature enough food for two people at a price that is in keeping with its inexpensive Chinatown neighbors. Oh, and did we mention they have the best ramen in town?
4. Moon Tower Inn 3004 Canal, 832-266-0105
There's something magical about Moon Tower Inn, out here in the untamed wilds of the Second Ward, the little red shack situated on a third of an acre of land that contains a few scattered picnic tables, a fire pit and a horseshoe setup among other backyard-y items. But what you won't find in your backyard are the hot dogs (more like sausage, honestly) that Moon Tower Inn serves up nearly every night starting at 5 p.m. Wild game like pheasant and elk is mixed up with ingredients like foie gras, sauternes, apples, pears, blueberries and cognac by owner Evan Shannon, transformed into a gourmet meal on a soft pretzel bun for only $6. Add one of the microbrews they have on draft and you're in for one of the best meals you'll have in Houston, under the night sky with a beautiful view of downtown to the west.
3. Gatlin's 1221 W. 19th Street, 281-804-4555
Although plenty of people were sad to see Jazzie's Cafe shut down, little did they know what depths of deliciousness would take its place. To go to Gatlin's on the few days that they're open each week is to enter into a world of barbecue brotherhood, where people have traveled for many miles to try Greg Gatlin's sausage and brisket. They never leave disappointed. The same can be said for Mary Gatlin's (Greg's mother) desserts, like the sumptuous peach cobbler. And if you thought barbecue joints couldn't do great sides if they're also doing great smoking, taste the delicious dirty rice and enjoy proving yourself wrong. Best of all? Gatlin's is in the Loop. When's the last time you had truly authentic, low-and-slow barbecue in the Loop? Exactly.
2. Bootsie's Heritage Cafe 112 Commerce, Tomball, 281-516-9699
The accolades for Randy Rucker's little-restaurant-that-could in Tomball, Bootsie's (named for his mother), keep piling up. The most recent came from GQ, in which Alan Richman named its hay-smoked Gulf mackerel as one of the top five dishes of the year, and from Alison Cook, who placed the restaurant at the top of her list of new restaurants for 2010. And like the Barbed Rose, Bootsie's has more than succeeded despite (or perhaps because of) its far-out location in Tomball, where Rucker and his chefs are able to farm and forage for area ingredients to use in their hyper-local, hyper-seasonal, hyper-creative dishes.
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1. Zelko Bistro 705 E. 11th Street, 713-880-8691
It was worth the wait (and the heat, due to a broken A/C unit) to taste Jamie Zelko's dishes at her first restaurant after leaving Bistro Lancaster in 2008. Zelko Bistro is the culmination of all of Zelko's talents and passions, and -- much like Bootsie's -- it's clear that it's a wonderful labor of love. In spite of Zelko's pedigree and the fine line she treads in offering highly popular comfort food that could easily veer off into faddish territory, there's no whiff of pretension here. Only good, honest, solid food at an affordable price in a warm and cozy environment. Wines by the glass or by the bottle are equally affordable, and Zelko even has a great craft beer selection, perfect for sipping on the quiet patio while you polish off a Boss Burger or her famous fried chicken. More importantly, Zelko Bistro has staying power; one can easily imagine it being in this Heights neighborhood for the next ten years, even if Zelko herself moves on to bigger and bolder things. But for now, she's pouring her heart and soul into every dish at her namesake restaurant and the love shows in every bite.