Restaurant Reviews

The 10 Best Houston Restaurants Reviewed (So Far) in 2016

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.