It would be easy to pack all the crazy good eats in Houston into a neat list of 10, but there is so much excellence happening in our food scene right now that a longer list was warranted. The dishes that defined 2018 were all exemplary in their own right, but the ones that made the strongest impression were cooked with heart, passion and creativity, showing off the breadth of Houston's diversity while underscoring the depth of the city's exceptional culinary talent.
13. Goi Bo at Le Colonial
When Le Colonial debuted in 2016, some mistakenly characterized the traditional Vietnamese dishes as “French-Vietnamese,” but it wasn’t until executive chef Hassan Obaye came on board in late 2017 that the food came to embody that moniker. Developed in collaboration with Nicole Routhier, Le Colonial’s Goi Bo, a spicy beef carpaccio salad, exactly captured the spirit of what French-Vietnamese cuisine could, and should be. On presentation, the dish resembled a classical steakhouse beef carpaccio. But on taste, it channelled the flavors of Vietnamese bo tai chanh (Beef carpaccio with lemon) — albeit a more upscale, Frenchified version — with a vivid and tangy but well-balanced fish-sauce-based dressing, organic Vietnamese herbs, fried shallots, and melt-in-your-mouth 44 Farms beef tenderloin.
12. Uni Pasta at Blackbird Izakaya
It could easily be mistaken for spaghetti mac ’n cheese, but the subtle oceanic of sweetness of fresh uni (sea urchin) shines through in this thoroughly enjoyable but hard to find dish of uni pasta by executive chef Billy Kin of Blackbird Izakaya. Inspired by a dish he tasted at a Japanese restaurant in Hawaii years ago, Kin uses a whole host of ingredients like sake and mirin, Parmigiano-Reggiano and butter to create an ultra-smooth, velvety sauce that lovingly coats each spaghetti strand. Topped with a generous helping of fresh uni, it’s the kind of dish that you order to share, only to end up hoarding it all to yourself because you can’t get enough of it.
11. Rotisserie Chicken Sandwich at Rhotey Rotisserie
Owner Vincent Taylor opened this nondescript strip center fast-casual spot without any prior restaurant experience, but his food is so good and reasonably priced, he quickly earned the unicorn of restaurant ratings on Yelp: five stars. Take one bite of his rotisserie chicken sandwich, made from Wayne Farms Naked Truth halal chicken, and it’s easy to see why. Served on a Slow Dough pretzel bun, moist, hand-pulled rotisserie chicken is topped bread and butter pickles, lettuce, heirloom tomato, balsamic onion marmelade, and crispy chicken skin, and then finished with a house-made buttermilk ranch dressing and melted provolone cheese to create a party in your mouth. Yes, it’s just a sandwich, but boy is it a damn good one.
10. Spaghetti al Tartufo Nero at Potente
There are truffle dishes all over Houston, but none that make such a consistently strong impression as the Spaghetti al Tartufo Nero by Danny Trace at Potente. A play on the Italian cacio e pepe, Trace’s black truffle-laced Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and pepper spaghetti, which is finished at the table with freshly shaved truffles supplied by local truffle importer DR Delicacy, has gained a cult following due to the one simple fact: Every morsel — from the al dente pasta, to the creamy sauce, to the heady aroma of truffle — is sublime.
9. Hand-pulled Burrata at Eunice
There are a whole host of dishes to fall in love with at chef Drake Leonard’s new Eunice Restaurant in Greenway — among them the blue crab tartine and the New Orlean’s BBQ Lobster — but break off a piece of crispy-at-the-edges, crumbly-moist warm buttermilk biscuit from the kitchen, then add a helping of creamy hand-pulled Puglianese burrata seasoned with olive oil and topped with a generous helping of pepper jelly and black pellets of Cajun Caviar, and you’ll be hard pressed to keep your eyes from rolling into the back of your head. Creamy and oh-so-delectable, with briny pellets of caviar that pop on the tongue and the sweet peppery jelly to tie it all together, the experience is one of pure gustatory joy.
8. Tomahawk Cognac Flambe for Two at La Table
Steakhouses and high end restaurants all across Houston have jumped on the tomahawk bandwagon with everything from elaborate cutting boards, to elaborate sides, to meat sourced from high end purveyors, but nothing holds a candle to La Table Chateau's 42-ounce Texas Long Bone Akaushi Ribeye. Wheeled to the table on an ornate gueridon, the thick-cut slab of meat is set a aflame in an elaborate table side show, then carved and served to order. Recommended for parties of two to three (but easily shareable for four), the Cognac marination adds a beautiful dimension of flavor to the naturally marbled, HeartBrand Ranch-sourced steak. A black peppercorn sauce and accompaniments of Joel Robuchon-style mashed potatoes and maitake mushroom round out this spectacular entree.
7. Spaghetti alla chitarra tossed in uni togarashi butter, topped fresh king crab and bee pollen at Nobie’s
Sometimes a chef puts together a combination of flavors and ingredients that creates an instant classic. If you’re lucky enough to get a your hands on a plate of chef-owner Martin Stayers’ squid ink spaghetti alla chitarra at Nobie’s, you’ll know what exactly what this means. Swathed in rich, viscous uni togirashi butter, and topped with crispy bee pollen and plump king crab, the visually captivating dish is equally captivating on the palate. The only caveat is that the Stayer only brings it back when king crab is in season, which means you need to catch it when you can (August to late October-ish).
6. Sea Salt Baked Live Spot Prawns at Fung’s Kitchen
Steamed live spot prawns are common at Cantonese seafood restaurants. So are live spot prawns done sashimi style. But live spot prawns baked in sea salt — which sort of brings to mind the Mediterranean style of baking fish in a salt crust — is not what you’d expect at a Chinese restaurant, which is what makes this dish so extraordinary. One of seven different preparations of live spot prawns offered by chef-owner Hoi Fung at Fung’s Kitchen, hot sea salt is poured on top of the live spot prawns, effectively steam-baking the crustaceans in their own juices. Prepared at the table-side, the cooking method amplifies the natural sweetness of the prawns while seasoning them at the same time, for bite after incredible bite of plump, delicious fruits de mer.
5. Thai Hamachi Tostada at Tris in The Woodlands
What would Houston cuisine look like on a plate? One of the coolest things about Houston food today is that it doesn’t have to fit a single bucket. Chefs can draw from the flavors and tastes of ethnic cuisines and come up with something that truly extraordinary, as in the case of chef Austin Simmon’s Thai Hamachi Tostada. Here, Simmons took the Mexican tostada — which would typically be topped with anything from fish and beans to seafood and chiles — and put a Thai spin on it, topping it with raw hamachi (yellowtail) crudo, then adding a red cabbage slaw and Thai-style vinaigrette for a dish that defies categorization, embodying what Houston, in all its diversity, is today.
4. Wagyu Pho at Saigon House Midtown
There are countless places in Houston where you can get a bowl of good to great pho. But when chef Tony Nguyen debuted his Wagyu pho — an oxtail-based 18-hour pho broth topped with thinly sliced pieces of Marble Ranch Wagyu — he took things to a whole new level. Using his mother’s recipe, but tweaking it so that he could achieve a tastier, more refined broth, his Wagyu pho broth is deep, rich, hearty, smooth and knock-your-socks-off delicious. The aromas are delicate but pronounced. The noodles are cooked al dente. The thin slices of Wagyu are melt-in-your-mouth tender. Poured at the table-side and priced at $17.99, you’d think that people would get sticker shock, but the pho is so outstanding, people just clamor for more of it. Here’s to hoping it he can make enough to keep up with demand, which has been so strong that the broth sells out regularly.
3. Dry-aged Duck à la Presse at Tony’s
It’s an old French classic, one of those dishes that you see in French institutions like La Tour D’Argent in Paris or at Daniel in New York City. Only a handful of places serve in the country, but 26-year-old chef de cuisine Austin Waiter had always wanted one, so with Tony Vallone’s blessing, he located and acquired a duck press device, and within a few weeks, began serving Houston’s only Duck à la Presse. Debuting in late March, the Crescent Island duck is truly one of a kind. Dry-aged in-house for 14 days and rubbed with dry herbs and Piedmontese chesnut honey, the duck is roasted until the fat is rendered and the skin is crispy. The whole bird is then presented to the table in all its glory before it's returned to the kitchen and carved up to yield slices of perfectly juicy, perfectly cooked medium rare duck breast with this beautifully seasoned, honey-crisp skin. Meanwhile, the bones from the duck are placed inside the duck press device, which is activated to release duck jus. Waiter then combines the duck jus with butter and cognac and flambées the sauce at the tableside before it's drizzled over the duck as the final finishing touch. Elaborate? Yes. Exquisite? Completely.
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2. Cornrows and Convictions at Indigo
Can one dish capture the political zeitgeist of our time? Cornrows and Convictions, served as part of the Herbivore menu at chef Jonny Rhodes’ 13-seat Indigo in Lindale Park, captivates you at first sight with the visual imagery of a bright yellow crown that brings to mind the crown on the Statue of Liberty. Made of autumn squash cooked over embers and smoked in Pecan wood, what’s striking about this dish is the message behind it, because Rhodes created it to challenge our notion of what freedom is. The squash, he explains, is one of the easiest things to grow within the agricultural farms run by state prisons — prisons that are staffed by inmates who have been incarcerated with lengthy sentences for non-violent crimes. It's a statement about mass incarceration. A silent peaceful protest to make us think about how food comes to be on our plate. Complex and beautiful and intellectually compelling, the dish is one of pure poetry from conception to execution.
1. Nancy’s Cakes at Nancy’s Hustle
Pillowy and light, with just enough crisp on the surface to give it this beautiful textural complexity, chef-owner Jason Vaughn’s deceptively simple Nancy’s Cakes, eaten with a dollop of softly sweet house-cultured honey butter and smoked trout roe, managed to tap the erogenous zones of palates far and wide. From Thrillist to Esquire to Eater to the Houston Chronicle, this the dish that sent everyone in a tizzy, and for good reason. The kind of dish that you can repeat over and over again and never get sick of, what’s unique about it is that it has no imitators. If you haven’t yet had a taste of Nancy’s Cakes, just head on over to Nancy’s Hustle in EaDo, and you’ll undoubtedly fall smitten, too.