Handicapping Alison Cook's 2013 Top 100 Restaurant List

Alison Cook, the Houston Chronicle's restaurant critic, unveiled her list of the top 100 restaurants in Houston (slideshow version here) to members of the media and invited chefs on the afternoon of Wednesday, September 11.

Cook tells us that she spent much of the past several months eating all over Houston and compiling the list. It's an admirable feat, of course, but it's also a source of controversy and discussion that continues for weeks after the list is published.

The top ten spots are filled by restaurants that most people probably expected to be there, but there are some surprises -- and even some snubs -- among the other 90 choices. If you're one who loves to eat like a critic and try out all of Cook's suggestions -- or even if you're just a lover of good food looking for something new -- you'll need some guidance to figure out which places on the list are worth a trip and the money.

To help you out, we've divided Cook's list into restaurants we totally expected to be featured; surprises; places that might break the bank; and hole-in-the-wall ethnic eateries. And then, of course, we'll mention some unfortunate snubs.

Saw That Comin' Cook's top ten list includes Oxheart, The Pass, Uchi, Underbelly, Tony's, Hugo's, Indika, Killen's, MF Sushi and Cove Cold Bar, in that order. While all of these restaurants are definitely worth a visit, we can't help but wonder how much Cook's decisions were influenced by national media coverage and hype. Oxheart scored the number one spot on Cook's list last year as well, and while we don't debate that it's a stunning, cutting-edge eatery, it seems almost cliché to rank it first again. Does the gripe of the everyman who reads about the marvels of Oxheart and The Pass and then doesn't find them at the top of the list come into play? We can only speculate.

Last year, Kata Robata, Feast, Hubcap Grill, Pondicheri and Pho Binh Trailer made Cook's top ten roster. Feast is now closed, and the other four have been bumped to the teens and 20s to make way for newcomers like Cove Cold Bar, MF Sushi and The Pass. It's been a good year for restaurant openings. Indika was moved up from 36, and Killen's (the steakhouse, not the much-talked-about barbecue pop-up) rose from 14.

Breaking the Bank Sometimes, great food comes with hefty price tags, and a number of restaurants on this year's list show that it's not always cheap to dine like a king. Every restaurant in the top ten will set you back a good amount, though some, like Oxheart, are pretty reasonable for what you get. Underbelly, Hugo's and MF Sushi have lunch menus that feature some of the same items as the dinner menus at lower prices.

At Cook's event, a photographer asked the people around him how many of the restaurants on the list are inexpensive enough for anyone to go and have a meal without feeling guilty. The answer is most of them, if you order right. That said, a few good dishes at Kata Robata, Triniti, RDG + Bar Annie, Latin Bites, Costa Brava, Philippe, Brennan's of Houston, Vic & Anthony's, Coppa Ristorante, Restaurant Cinq, Haven, Kiran's, Kris Bistro, La Casa del Caballo, Rainbow Lodge, La Fisheria and Ristorante Cavour can all add up pretty quickly.

Branching Out For those less inclined to drop hundreds of dollars at classic Houston hot spots, Cook's list includes a number of smaller, almost hole-in-the-wall ethnic joints. Many of these spots are in strip centers, tucked away among hairdressers and dry cleaners, and if you weren't seeking them out, you might never stop there.

For an authentic, no-frills experience, hit up Vieng Thai, Shri Balaji Bhavan, Asia Market, Karanchos, Rice Bowl Indonesian, La Guadalupana, Yum Yum Cha Cafe, Banana Leaf Malaysian Cuisine, Taqueria Laredo, Taqueria La Macro or Bon Ga Garden Korean Restaurant.

Surprises and Snubs A few places made the list that, quite frankly, we weren't expecting. That's not to imply that these places are bad; they're just not what we'd have on our list. We were surprised, for instance, that La Casa Del Caballo was ranked at 53 and Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, which does its own butchering and dry rubbing in-house, isn't on the list at all. We were also surprised to see Killen's Steakhouse ranked so high. It's great steak, to be sure, but Killen's has really been killing it lately with its barbecue. Of course, the barbecue joint isn't exactly open yet, but we imagine it'll make the list next year.

Cook gave Ciao Bello a terrible review awhile back, so its inclusion on the list is unexpected. We're also curious to know what Indika did to move up from 36 to 7.

There are three sushi restaurants in the top 17, but nothing after that. Where is Soma? And while we're at it, where are all the food trucks? Bernie's Burger Bus was ranked 28 last year, but it's conspicuously absent from the 2013 list. There are a few barbecue trailers, but other than those, there are no food trucks represented. We think Pi Pizza deserves a shout-out, as does Oh My Gogi! BBQ

Other notable omissions include Brooklyn Athletic Club, Mockingbird Bistro and Backstreet Cafe. Apparently, Cook is just not feeling Americana this year.

Final Thoughts This is a great list. It's a wonderful way for people who might not be overly familiar with the Houston food scene to learn a little about some of the best local restaurants. Most of the places on the list are deserving. There are a few question marks and a few possible snubs, but, generally, we agree with the selections. Some of the restaurants that placed lower on the list seem to be ones that Cook just really likes, rather than the best in Houston, but hey, it's her list.

So what are your thoughts on Alison Cook's 100 Favorite Restaurants for 2013? What's missing? What's wrong? We love dialogue and debate about food, so let's hear it.

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