The Hits of 2011
The challenge in choosing ten of the best restaurants to open in Houston each year is a daunting one: Many of the restaurants I think are "the best" have little to nothing to do with each other, making for a list that falls all over the map when it comes to price, cuisine and location.
Then again, the amusing disjointedness represents Houston itself — as does the fact that three of last year's top ten best new restaurants no longer exist in the same incarnations (Caffe Bello, Umai and Bootsie's). Houston is nothing if not transitory, constantly tearing down and rebuilding itself over the years.
The challenge this year is trying to overcome that mutability — to select restaurants that I hope and believe will be around in the future — and to also choose restaurants that best represent our current Third Coast culinary climate and the bright direction in which it's headed. These ten restaurants are not only the best of a large group that has opened this year, they are what makes Houston such a fun and unique city to dine in. Dig in.
10. Radical Eats
A few years ago, it would have been unthinkable to me to place a vegan restaurant on any year-end best-of lists. But Radical Eats is about so much more than just vegan food: It's about bringing a healthy, relatively inexpensive dining option to a low-income neighborhood. It's about making the most out of local and seasonal produce sourced from all over the city. It's about taking a traditional Houston cuisine — Tex-Mex — and making it new again with a few vegan twists on old standards. Owner Staci Davis does all this and more in her remixed Northside Village taqueria. Oh, and did we mention that Sunday's vegan brunch is all-you-can-eat?
Honorable mention also goes to Green Seed Vegan's food truck for doing the same thing in its Third Ward neighborhood. I can't wait to see what becomes of owners Rodney Perry and Matti Merrell when they have a full-fledged restaurant of their own.
9. Xuco Xicana
Although the menu here is still inconsistent nearly a year after rebranding as Xuco Xicana (or El XX) and moving away from its former El Patio roots, Chef Jonathan Jones wows with dishes like his stunning Gulf Coast ceviche, which secured the No. 2 spot in this year's list of our 100 Favorite Dishes. The modern Tex-Mex joint also has our favorite wings in town right now, as well as our favorite torta. (Hint: The beef fajita torta is not only the most delicious dish currently on the menu, it's also one of the least expensive.) And while the restaurant doesn't always fire on all pistons, it's an exciting — if occasionally bumpy — ride into the future of modern Tex-Mex with wild and woolly Chef JJ at the helm.
8. El Gran Malo
Although it's tempting to compare and contrast El Gran Malo with Xuco Xicana, it would be folly. Because while both offer their own interpretations of modern Gulf Coast-style Tex-Mex cuisine, each is unique. What makes El Gran Malo all the more impressive is that its owners never intended the Heights-area "gastrocantina" to serve food — it was meant as a tequila bar first and foremost. The house-infused tequilas are stunning, to be sure, as there's absolutely nothing else like them in town. But equally impressive are the dishes like a massive torta-burger or Mexican Coca-Cola-braised pork belly tacos.
7. Mala Sichuan
Mala Sichuan represents a new direction for Chinatown, which is itself relatively new to Houston. "Old Chinatown" (now known, for better or worse, as EaDo) died out in the 1980s as rents rose in the buildings and strip malls east of downtown. New Chinatown — which could more appropriately be called Asia Town — cropped up around the same time in the much cheaper area around Beltway 8 and Bellaire Boulevard, and has been accumulating excellent restaurants, bakeries, coffeehouses and more over the years. Mala Sichuan is one of the new "second generation" restaurants that focused on serving authentic food (Sichuanese cuisine in this case) but with more Western elements like snappy service and an easy-to-decipher menu. Owner Cori Xiong's all-Sichuan team of chefs also ensures that nearly every dish to come out of the kitchen is a winner, from the ginger sauce-braised, softball-size pork meatballs to more exotic foods like the red chile oil-laced Couple's Lung Dish.
6. The Queen Vic Pub & Kitchen
A pattern among most of the restaurants on this list is that the food they're creating — be it Indian, Mexican, French or Italian — is markedly Texan. More specifically, it's influenced by the Third Coast/Gulf Coast trend that's starting to emerge in Houston, whereby more of our native foods and flavors are showcased across many different cuisines. In the case of The Queen Vic (which, it should be noted, opened late in 2010), Chef Shiva Patel shows off her Indian roots through English pub food with a Texan flair. Her creamed spinach and paneer-topped grilled Gulf oysters remains one of the dining highlights of my year. The Queen Vic is also notable for its strong cocktail and craft beer program, both of which are full of intelligent choices that complement the modern pub vibe.
One of my ongoing battles is fighting for TQLA to get the respect it deserves despite its Washington Avenue location. I always wonder whether or not I should even mention it, but someone always makes a point of saying that they'd never go there because of the street it fronts. What a dumb, terrible way to go about making dining decisions. Especially considering that TQLA has no valet, but instead offers a secure — and free! — parking garage for its guests behind the restaurant, as well as a beautiful dining room with curvaceous copper sculptures and stately agave plants that make it as attractive for date nights as it is for happy hours. Chef Tommy Birdwell's new Southwestern/nuevo Tex-Mex menu is just as unexpected, filled with treasures such as blue corn-crusted Gulf oysters and duck tamales in a silky sweet potato masa. It's also the only restaurant in town with a "certified tequilier," so come prepared to broaden your horizons when it comes to TQLA's namesake spirit.
4. Brasserie 19
I'm all in favor of fat, buttery Gulf Coast oysters — as evidenced by the last two entries on this list — but there's a lot to be said for their briny East and West Coast brethren. You can get some of the country's finest oysters at Brasserie 19, one of the two Clark-Cooper restaurants to make this year's list, but you can get some pretty outstanding local fare, too: a Houston Dairymaids cheese board, for example, or Gulf-caught red snapper with a bright fennel salad. As befitting a brasserie, the portions here are (mostly) heavy and rustic, with an emphasis on French classics that pair well with the beers on the small but well-composed beer list, like a croque madame and frites with a Saison Dupont. Sure, it's pricey — but you'll get a show with your dinner here as you watch the River Oaks parade of wealth on display, and maybe even some bread horns, too.
3. Coppa Ristorante Italiano
The closer to the top of the list, the more flawless the restaurants. In fact, although other diners have reported some unsteady meals there, I've yet to have a bad dish at Clark-Cooper's casual Italian restaurant that replaced Catalan. Chef Brandi Key's low-key, high-impact cooking shines in dishes like pumpkin ravioli garnished with dried cranberries, toasted pumpkin seeds and simple brown butter sauce or her of-the-moment duck agnolotti with pine nuts and crispy Brussels sprouts leaves. Add in a fun, lively bar and a patio full of promise for the summer, and Coppa is one of the best new additions to the city's dining scene.
A stunning dining room. A menu full of well-executed French classics with Texan twists. A wine list to match any price range or palate. A chef who treats every diner and every dish as if they were cherished objects. Yet Philippe is easily the most accessible — both in cost and feel — upscale restaurant to open in Houston in years. There's no need to feel fussed over when all you want to do is bury your face in one of Chef Philippe Schmit's decadent terrines of foie gras or a heavy plate of rich coq au vin. The restaurant manages to strike that delicate balance between graciously elegant and comfortably intimate at the same time, while offering some of the most impeccable French cuisine in the city.
I named Pondicheri my favorite new restaurant of the year all the way back in June — that's how striking the food, the ambience, the craft beer list, the baked goods program and everything else about this Gulf Coast Indian restaurant was and remains. With only a few exceptions, Pondicheri is very near perfection. In the intervening months, Pondicheri has continued to impress with improved service and consistently delicious offerings from breakfast all the way through dinner: a bowl of warm, peanut-topped uppma to start the day and a plate of Gulf shrimp chaat for dinner, and all is right with the world. I have a feeling that — as with Indika, chef/owner Anita Jaisinghani's other restaurant — we'll be singing Pondicheri's praises for many years to come.
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