Welcome to the very first installment of our picks of the hottest restaurants in Houston. To make it as helpful as possible, the list is divided by category ranked from most to least fancy. Additionally, every month we'll feature an “Oldie But Goodie” to point out longstanding places that diners should go check out again, especially if it's been a while.
This month, it's clear that the Heights has it really good right now. It's been the hottest of the hot spots for new and notable Houston restaurant openings. Half of this list is, in fact, in the Heights — and deservedly so. In time, though, every restaurant settles into more normal levels of business. How long will these restaurants be hot? Only time will tell.
La Table, 1800 Post Oak: Word on the street is enthusiastic about the current direction of the former Table on Post Oak. The restaurant is now under the purview of Invest Hospitality, the same company behind Michelin-starred L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon. Finally, traditional French fare and service is getting a hearty embrace at this location. The restaurant is divided into three spaces: fine dining (Château), a casual French market (Marché) and a pastry counter that features fine macarons.
Nice But Not Fussy
Helen Greek Food & Wine, 2429 Rice: With its recent mention in The New York Times’ “36 Hours In Houston” article, Helen continues to be on a rocket ride skyward. This follows its November mention in the Washington Post’s focus piece on Houston in its "The Search For America’s Best Food Cities" series. The newcomer is solidly among Hugo’s, Underbelly, The Pass & Provisions and Oxheart when it comes to the Houston restaurants that have broken through from local to national notability. The can’t-miss items include the greens-n-cheese pie, lamb ribs (when available), the trio of dips and make your own gyro. Do allow owner-sommelier Evan Turner or his staff to talk you into trying the exciting selection of Greek wine. UPDATED, 2/17/16, 11:26 a.m.: Helen Greek Food & Wine has been named a semifinalist for this year's James Beard Foundation awards. It doesn't get hotter than that!
Hunky Dory, 1801 North Shepherd: Chef Richard Knight’s new home received a glowing review from us and is still under heavy discussion and comparison by diners. It’s the first of the Treadsack trio of new restaurants that have opened since November. The can’t-miss items include The Silver Salver (for groups of three or four — a mini-selection is available for duos), a remarkable but not overwrought double-patty cheeseburger that incorporates chuck, brisket and tongue (that’s the real secret right here), and the touching nods to Knight’s prior restaurant, Feast. Those include the Exmoor toasts, available at lunchtime, and the sticky toffee pudding. Try at least one cocktail from bar director Leslie Ross and bar manager Chris Morris. Also, the assortment of British-influenced breakfast dishes at brunch is well worth rolling out of bed for. The scones are excellent.
Bernadine’s, 1801 North Shepherd: How to start an animated talk (argument) with diners — express an opinion on which is better, Bernadine’s or its next-door neighbor, Hunky Dory. Bernadine’s has been a little more low-key than Hunky Dory, but more than one diner has been charmed by its Gulf Coast offerings. Start with a glass of dry white wine and some selections from the raw bar, such as marinated blue crab claws and Gulf oysters, then move on to homey choices such as smoked duck and oyster gumbo and Dr Pepper-glazed duck. Cheeky items like smoked ribs with sorghum popcorn and grilled strawberries exemplify the fun side of LaFayette-reared chef Graham Laborde.
State of Grace, 3258 Westheimer: Houston native Ford Fry’s first endeavor in his hometown is doing very well — so well, in fact, that the only issue is caused by the hordes of diners who have come to worship at his temple of Houston food culture. There’s great affection evident in the menu choices, and it comes through in the execution of gems like the twice fried hot chicken (a.k.a. Korean fried chicken) and the cheese enchilada a la Felix. A selection of raw oysters are only one dollar at happy hour, and that’s one of the best restaurant bargains in town. This is a nice place, but don’t be afraid to eat with your hands.
KA Sushi, 1901 North Shepherd: This Japanese restaurant next door hasn’t received a whole lot of attention in the media, but diners in the area sure know it’s there. It went on a 30-minute wait a few Fridays ago. Once inside, the menu is shockingly extensive in every area — cocktails, whiskey (Japanese and Scotch, among others) and several pages’ worth of food choices. Sushi is done the traditional way — bite-size, not hulking slabs or monstrous rolls. No matter whether someone wants hot rock beef, yakimono (such as a skewer of grilled chicken hearts interspersed with shiso) or sashimi, KA Sushi has it. Even the ramen with oxtail in curried coconut duck broth here is a pretty fine rendition.
Southern Goods, 632 West 19th: How hot is Southern Goods? One night a few weeks ago, it went on a 90-minute wait for a table. The restaurant, helmed by executive chef Lyle Bento, chef de cuisine J.D. Woodward and pitmaster/sous chef Patrick Feges, is bowling people over with smoky barbecued beef belly, “pig wings” (imagine chicken wings but a hundred times meatier) and cheeseburgers that are among the best in town. Some nights there is live entertainment featured, and those seem to be the busiest. The parking lot isn’t huge, so be prepared to park a short distance away on 19th street.
The Halal Guys, 3821 Farnham: The initial opening was fraught with long lines and traffic issues, but we're hearing that things have calmed down a bit. Waits are as short as ten minutes for weekday lunch now. So it's worth trying to go for a New York-style fix of chicken and gyro doused in the famously garlicky white sauce and flaming-hot pepper sauce. Use with caution. The best story we've heard so far is of a woman trying to cool the heat by calling for "some more of that white gravy." Oh, Houston. You're so funny sometimes.
Tejas Chocolate Craftory, 200 Elm, Tomball
The quaint small town just outside of far northwest Houston has shaken off its culinary slumber at last. Leading the charge is Tejas Chocolate Craftory. In addition to its longstanding bean-to-bar chocolate program (yes, Tejas even roasts and grinds its own cacao beans), the restaurant has added, of all things, Texas-style barbecue. It's a hit. They sold out this past Saturday and have been helped along with good reviews by local barbecue writers. Houston has been graced with unseasonably gorgeous weather so far this month. Isn't it time for a short road trip?
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Oldie But a Goodie
Mark’s American Cuisine, 1658 Westheimer: The ideas machine at Mark’s seems to be in full gear. Chef Mark Cox appears to be on a mission of refreshing the menu. This month, a different mini-pie with an optional wine pairing will be offered each week. Mark’s has also implemented a new happy hour (bar area only) Sunday through Thursday from 5 to 7 p.m. A selection of cocktails and wine are six dollars each, and small plates, which include pear salad with goat cheese, crab-stuffed squash blossoms and beef carpaccio with capers and vinaigrette, are $7 each. Could it be that this old stalwart in a former church is embracing a new, modern perspective on Houston dining? We think so. Keep an eye on its Facebook page, as Mark’s often posts photos of just-arrived ingredients and new dishes (and they are uniformly gorgeous).