March's Naranja y Azafran, or Orange and Saffron, dessert with candied almonds, vanilla chantilly and mandarin supremes.
Despite the challenges of the last two years, thankfully this year we saw a rebound in Houston restaurant openings, many of which proved excellent. The new additions include everything from high-end restaurants with tasting menus to casual neighborhood joints. After a long period of being cooped-up, Houstonians eagerly responded. Dining out came back in a big way, and Houston’s resilient hospitality industry delivered.
In 2020, we decided to not create a Best New Restaurants list. For much of that awful year, many patrons — including us — were not eating in dining rooms. Many restaurant owners pivoted to take-out to accommodate restrictions that limited the number of guests who could dine indoors. We weren’t going to evaluate new restaurants based mostly on takeout meals — or even on patio dining, since not all restaurants have a patio. Instead, we joined forces with the Houston Press on a 12-part series of 2020 Favorites.
With last year thankfully in our rearview mirror, it’s a relief and a delight to present our writers’ picks for the Best New Restaurants of 2021. Still, there’s also a twist this year, as we aren’t out of the pandemic’s shadow yet. It took until late spring for many of our writers to get fully vaccinated, so we were unable to do normal dining room visits for the first half of the year. In a normal year, there’s usually a lot of overlap in our restaurant visits. Multiple writers would usually visit the same places on their own, and that would lead to vigorous debates about which restaurants are truly the “best.” This year, we didn’t have as much overlap.
The other odd factor is that expensive tasting menu restaurants came roaring back into fashion (whether vestiges of projects planned before the pandemic or born from a desire to temporarily escape its clutches) — and well-heeled patrons flocked to them. Those high prices throw into question the meaning of “best.” If you get what you pay for, does “best” mean “most expensive,” or does “best” mean “best value for the money?” If “best” does mean most expensive because it’s the finest example of dining, how is that fun or equitable for our readers who aren’t able to throw $300-plus at a single meal?
We could have created a list topped by four tasting menu restaurants. However, after a year of mass closings, crawling economic recovery and “ The Great Resignation ” of people leaving bad jobs to create better lives for themselves, it just didn’t seem right. Plus, the outstanding restaurants of 2021 include several that are moderately priced and deserve equal attention. So, this year’s list is alphabetical.
Considering that the year had so many notable openings, it’s good to see the Houston food scene get this shot in the arm — pun intended. One last note: eligible restaurants opened between December 1, 2020 and November 30, 2021.
Now, let’s get to the list.
93′ Til, 1601 West Main: Housed inside the former home of Night Heron, 93′ Til opened at the end of 2020 — a rough time for the restaurant community. Fortunately, this restaurant found its footing anyway. Chefs Gary Ly (who refined his groove at Underbelly and David Chang’s Momofuku) and Lung Ly and Jeff Potts have expertly blended a light-but-filling menu and robust cocktail program with their love for music. While it toes the line between restaurant and bar, we decided that the fully fledged menu with entrées tipped it more towards the former than the latter. Update, 12/20/21, 3 p.m.: we’ve been informed that chef Gary Ly left the restaurant and new chef Jeff Potts now helps Lung Ly develop and execute the menu.
93′ Til serves multiple purposes, whether as a place for stopping by to enjoy a drink with friends or for bringing a date for a full, sit-down meal of dishes that change seasonally. Standouts from our most recent visit include Korean Butternut Squash Soup, made with kimchi apples and Marcona almonds, then sprinkled with gochugaru chili flakes and sesame seeds, and Octopus Carpaccio with lemon vinaigrette and Calabrian aioli and topped with marinated mushrooms and pine nuts.
For a larger entrée, the rainbow trout with broken gribiche and fingerling potatoes is an excellent choice, and it’s ample enough for couples or friends that like to share. The fingerling potatoes made with charred onion soubise (a classic sauce with a béchamel base), pickled shallots, spring onions and smoked trout roe are well worth ordering as a side, too.
Cocktails like the Gary Martinez made with Zephyr gin, Dolin Blanc, Pierre Ferrand dry curacao and orange bitters are artfully crafted with just the right amount of boozy punch, while seasonal drinks like the I’m in Love with the Cocoa made with Guittard Cocoa Rouge, Ghirardelli dark and milk chocolate, piloncillo, cinnamon and vanilla, topped with arbol, Montenegro whipped cream (trust us — add the optional Illegal Mezcal) will keep you warm and happy on the few wintery nights we get in Houston. – Beth Levine, food and drink writer
Chivos, 222 West 11th: Chef Thomas Bille had an interesting journey before leading the kitchen at this modern Mexican establishment in the Heights. He started in Los Angeles, worked for Hugo Ortega for a short time and then opened Belly of the Beast in Spring. Like so many, that restaurant’s business was affected by the pandemic. So when the team at Night Moves Hospitality (Space Cowboy, Trash Panda Drinking Club) offered him the executive chef position at Chivos, he took it. Heights residents now have a nearby eatery that is channeling some of the exciting developments that are happening at Mexico’s best restaurants .
Billes’ menu displays an interesting mix of street food-heritage and his creative vision. In a comfortable space decked out in natural woods and vibrant greens, diners can enjoy pork dumplings in pozole broth with almond salsa macha, the simple-yet-decadent delight of freshly toasted flour tortillas spread with butter and dabbed with salmon roe and a juicy, flavor-laden pollo al carbon glazed in soy sauce and accompanied by shishito peppers and cherry tomatoes . Bille’s food is often all about humble, flavorful ingredients reimagined, but the Uvas y Burrata — grapes roasted in brown butter, pistachios and shallots, topped with mint and parsley and served over burrata that’s lightly dressed with olive oil, salt and pepper and placed atop fig chamoy — shows his creativity and refinement. Bille is a chef to watch. It will be interesting to see if Chivos is where he makes his mark or if it’s another step on his journey. Click to read my full article about Chivos. — Phaedra Cook, editor and publisher
Degust, 7202 Long Point: Houston finally has a high-end tasting menu restaurant that doesn’t take itself too seriously. The first clue is the location. You won’t be greeted by white-gloved valets at this used car lot-style property. Just park and walk inside. Once through the doors, Motown music on the overheads rocks the garden-chic foyer, and Can Xa, Cava Brut or similar bubbly is poured by Degust’s friendly yet highly regarded maitre d’ and sommelier, Dale Ellington (formerly of Kata Robata).
The restaurant is the brainchild of chef Brandon Silva, who previously worked at acclaimed establishments such as Holley’s , Brennan’s of Houston, Uchi and, more recently, all of The Kirby Group’s concepts including Wooster’s Garden. Only nine months after opening Degust, Silva left. Fortunately, the restaurant is still in the more-than-capable hands of co-chef owners Javier Becerra, formerly of BCN and MAD, and Rico Mackins, who has worked with chefs Ryan Pera and Robert Del Grande, as well as at Nobie’s.
Ellington says a friend of his calls Degust’s setting “culinary theater in the round,” and it’s an apt description. Both chefs are friendly and engaging as they guide you through the 12-plus course tasting menu, which is $115. A service fee is included that goes to the staff. Beverage pairings can be added for $65. Compared to other tasting menu restaurants, these are reasonable prices.
While the seasonal menu is subject to change, some of the perfectly executed, garden-driven dishes include crispy Eggplant Chips with Romesco. The chips are lightly drizzled with local honey to add a touch of sweetness. The Venison Tar Tar is served nacho-style on house nixtamalized blue corn tortilla chips and Castelvetrano olive purée.
Instead of a banana leaf, c ochinita pibil is folded into a pillowy gyoza and served with a Pork Jowl Pozole that is more a concentrated sauce than a soup. The optional beverage pairings include a sampling of cocktails and interesting wines such as the 2018 Jose Antonio Garcia, Unculin. There are racy add-ons, too, like the Ossetra Caviar Bump — a dollop of caviar that you eat right off of your fist .
Finish the night with the bacon-y Marranito Ice Cream Sandwich, and then drop by Degust’s sister cocktail bar next door. Diversion, from Kirby Group co-owner and drink guru Steven Salazar, specializes in inventive drinks such as Cereal Milk made with bourbon, cognac and, as the name suggests, Corn Flakes-infused milk and Bone Marrow, a drink that uses a bone as a luge to deliver tequila, Texas winter citrus bitters and Fresno pepper tincture to your mouth. — Staci Davis, food writer
Fegen’s, 1050 Studewood: In 2020, F.E.E.D. TX restaurant group sold its Liberty Kitchen brand but retained its original Heights location. Now called Fegen’s, after chef-owner Lance Fegen, Liberty Kitchen’s bright colors and big red rooster statue have been replaced by darker interior tones and an upscale lounge/steakhouse aesthetic. The result is a more mature atmosphere that compliments a kitchen that is serving up standards from the Great American Songbook of nationally loved dishes.
There’s hot and cold seafood, classic appetizers, pasta, pizza and steak. The menu even brings back favorites from previous F.E.E.D restaurants, such as the 40oz. to Freedom All-Star Gumbo from Liberty Kitchen and BRC’s Pub Burger. BRC was also known for its various versions of mac and cheese, and Fegen’s takes this to a new level with offerings such as Crab Mac & Cheese and G-Town Mac & Cheese. The latter is listed as a side but could easily take the place of an entrée thanks to its inclusion of blue crab, shrimp, grilled jalapeño and bacon, all brought together with a soothing, creamy, cheese sauce. Macaroni makes yet another appearance, this time sans cheese, in the Rago’s Sunday Meatball with veal and links of sweet sausage tossed in a tomato gravy. Fegen’s has also assembled an extensive beer and wine list, as well as a sophisticated cocktail program. — Ryan Kasey Baker, food and beverage writer
Feges BBQ Spring Branch, 8217 Long Point: In July, Patrick Feges and Erin Smith opened the second location of their popular barbecue restaurant — the first is in the HUB food court in Greenway Plaza. The new Spring Branch location is a more spacious, family-friendly eatery with an expanded menu and, unique for Texas barbecue, a well-curated wine list.
Recently named one of Texas Monthly’s Top 50 best barbecue joints in the Lone Star State, Feges BBQ Spring Branch offers a traditional array of excellent smoked meats, such as brisket, pork ribs, sausage, brisket burnt ends and half chicken. However, it also offers entrées such as succulent Southern Fried Chicken, perfectly cooked Porcini Crusted Hanger Steak, a Whole Hog Platter (Carolina-style barbecued whole hog with cracklin and mop sauce), the Feges BBQ Burger and Brisket and Chicken Enchiladas.
During this current barbecue renaissance, a modern barbecue joint isn’t just about delectable smoked meats. It also needs to offer great sides. At Feges BBQ, Smith does just that, and her repertoire includes Spicy Korean Braised Greens, Money Cat Potatoes, Moroccan Spiced Carrots and Hog Fat Cornbread. Be sure to save room for desserts such as PB & J Chocolate Cake and Banana and Caramel Cream Pie.
All of these elements combine to create a restaurant that is both a family-friendly neighborhood joint and a barbecue destination worth a drive from anywhere in Texas. Click to read more about Feges BBQ Spring Branch. — David Leftwich, associate editor
Heartbeet, 14714 Memorial: When giving accolades to plant-based restaurants, a typical plaudit is, “even meat-eaters will be satisfied.” That’s true of Heartbeet, the new Memorial-area restaurant from the family behind Hungry’s. More importantly, it’s providing food that vegans and vegetarians will find well-executed and exciting. According to one website , in 2018, 10% of adults from 18 to 29 and 12% of those from 30 to 49 are vegan or vegetarian — twice as many as those over age 50. Heartbeet is the Hungry’s for a new generation.
Heartbeet is at its most successful when it relies on whole foods to step in for meat. For example, young coconut is a refreshing replacement for fish in the Citrus-Marinated “Ceviche.” The same goes for the roasted beets that stand in for fresh tuna in the beautifully composed “Poke” Bowl. The beets are accompanied by roasted Brussels sprouts, cucumber slices and watermelon radish. All that goes atop coconut-imbued basmati rice, and then the dish is drizzled with chipotle-chili sauce. The warmly-spiced lentil soup was a wholly satisfying comfort; perfect for cool weather. The Cashew Queso is one of those dips of which you might want to order an extra pint for at-home snacking.
When it comes to vegan “meats,” I’ve so far only tried Heartbeet’s take on a Philly Cheesesteak. It was visually enticing, but the vaguely cinnamon-y flavor of the thinly sliced seitan was off-putting enough to negate any appeal. That may not be the case with the other dishes that use meat analogs.
The location is a little tricky. Heartbeet is inside the building that used to house NextDoor bar, and there’s no front door facing the parking lot. To get to the entrance, you have to walk through the Hungry’s patio. However, we’ve seen plenty of restaurants inside restaurants, and speakeasies inside of bars. Hopefully, Houston diners won’t find a restaurant at a restaurant odd and will venture in to try the creative, healthy offerings. — Phaedra Cook, editor and publisher
Hidden Omakase, 5353 West Alabama: This tucked-away Galleria restaurant, hidden behind the facade of a comic book shop, is the home of a rarity: a woman chef leading a Japanese restaurant. Executive chef Niki Vongthong is doing a fine job of it, too, crafting menus that progress perfectly through seafood and nigiri — such as a solitary Boomamoto Oyster with icy yuzu slush and emerald-hued cilantro oil and Sakura Masu, or silky cherry salmon, in a lush citrus-buttermilk bath. She’ll then serve a hot dish or two before finishing with a light, beautiful dessert, like Matcha Custard with a base of forbidden rice and topped with tiny, spherical rice crackers.
Vongthong also manages to sneak in a hint or two of her Thai heritage, such as the perilla (shiso) seeds and shiso “chimichurri” that accent the A5 Wagyu nigiri. If there’s a negative to Hidden Omakase, it’s that the dining room, which is home to not much more than a large, U-shaped dining counter, is coolly austere. That might be okay, though. There’s more than enough vibrancy on the plate to keep your eyes — and mouth — entertained.
Dining at Hidden Omakase is $175 per person plus tax and gratuity. Drink pairings are not included, but it is BYOB. Reservations go fast and can be made online . Click to read more about Hidden Omakase. — Phaedra Cook, editor & publisher
J-Bar-M Barbecue, 2201 Leeland: Wowza. Just when you thought that Houston didn’t need another barbecue joint, along comes J-Bar-M to prove otherwise. It’s one of the best-designed barbecue restaurants I’ve experienced. The dining room is enclosed with tall windows that let in plenty of natural light. There is a spacious outside seating area, a centerpiece bar built half inside the dining room and half on the patio and a play yard for kids with bright artificial turf, rodeo practice dummies and lassos. (More than one adult has also been spotted testing their own lasso skills.)
Of course, it’s inside where the real fun is. Tended by pitmaster Willow Villarreal (formerly of the well-received Willow’s Texas BBQ food truck), massive Moberg smokers slow cook hundreds of pounds of sausages, rib racks, briskets and pork butts daily. My quarter-pound slab of moist brisket was bisected with a layer of meltingly tender fat — just the way I like it. The recently added housemade jalapeño cheddar sausage boasted a casing that snapped briskly upon the first bite. Pork ribs, coated with a rub comprised mainly of salt and pepper — but with a little extra something (garlic powder, perhaps?) — were simply perfect and the meat gently pulled off the bone.
The sides were just as exemplary. Mac and cheese is so often disappointing at barbecue joints, but J-Bar-M’s is sufficiently cheesy. The red cabbage slaw and marinated tomatoes belie the idea that you can’t eat healthy at a barbecue joint. The same can be said about the lanky and tender green beans cooked with bacon that lay neatly side by side in an oblong carafe like tin soldiers. My one quibble is that I thought the sauce for the creamed corn was thin, and yet, it was still a good rendition.
The desserts are also surprisingly great. The banana pudding exemplifies the simple purity of an old-fashioned recipe — no adornment or infusions needed — while the Chocolate Ganache Pie is a crown jewel that would be right at home at a fine French restaurant.
The crazy thing is that J-Bar-M is just getting started. It opened in mid-November. Soon to come are steak nights and daily specials. There’s a BQ Grills roaster in the back awaiting whole pigs, and a custom firebox designed to burn wood down into evenly heated coals before being fed to the firebox of that pig roaster.
Other barbecue restaurants and pitmasters have tried and failed in EaDo. With its act together from the get-go (and clearly with enough funding for this classy operation) J-Bar-M Barbecue is taking no chances. — Phaedra Cook, editor and publisher
Le Jardinier, 5500 Main: I had two experiences this year at brand-new restaurants that I considered perfect, and this was one of them. (The other was not in Houston — it was at Callie in San Diego, which was recently awarded Bib Gourmand status by the Michelin Guide.) Visiting Le Jardinier at the Museum of Fine Arts is a magical journey from the minute you walk in the door of the museum’s sleek new Kinder Building, which houses the MFAH’s collection of international modern and contemporary art. When you enter the restaurant’s small reception room, you receive a courteous welcome. From then to the end of the meal, the service is the epitome of that old saying, “Is there anything else we can do to make your evening more perfect?” Early evening, while it’s still daylight, is the best time to visit so you can gaze on the sculpture garden outside, which turns beautifully misty during a rainstorm.
The food is overseen by New York-based Michelin-starred executive chef Alain Verzeroli and chef de cuisine Andrew Ayala of The Bastion Collection, which owns Le Jardinier and several other well-regarded restaurants, and locally executed by chef de cuisine Felipe Botero Sanchez. The results are joyful. I had the spring menu, but the fall menu sounds just as promising. While there are à la carte selections (entrées range from $32 to $48), this is a place where you want to go all out and order the seasonal, five-course tasting menu for $130, with wine pairings for an additional $110 (plus tax and gratuity). The price point means that for most of us this particular experience will be reserved for special moments — holidays, anniversaries, birthdays and deal-closings both personal and professional. Whatever the occasion, Le Jardinier will be memorable.
A few of the current menu selections — all presented on exacting, beautiful servingware — include Crescent Farm Duck redolent with black tea and spices served with orange aigre-doux (essentially a light, French sweet-and-sour sauce) and turnips and milk chocolate mousse with bitter orange gelée and a buttery sugar cookie accented with a touch of fleur de sel.
Wine is clearly important at Le Jardinier, as evidenced by the sommeliers constantly floating around the room like swans. One is Taylor Adams, a Court of Masters Certified Sommelier, and the other is Advanced Sommelier Andres Blanco, formerly of Caracol and a previous Iron Sommelier. I loved Blanco’s bubbling enthusiasm when discussing selections, whether it was Champagne (from France, of course) or Pinot Noir from Sonoma.
This is not the only Le Jardinier. The original is in New York City and bears a Michelin star, and there are others in Miami and Geneva, but I’d like to think that Houston’s museum-worthy one is the most special. — Phaedra Cook, editor & publisher
March, 1624 Westheimer: Of all the restaurants that opened this past year, this Montrose tasting menu restaurant from the team of executive chef Felipe Riccio, master sommelier June Rodil and business partners Peter and Bailey McCarthy (the team behind Rosie Cannonball and Montrose Cheese & Wine) received the most buzz. There are several reasons for that. Much of the staff have long histories in Houston and deserve to be cheered on as the home team. Riccio paid his dues working at Aura, REEF, The Pass & Provisions and Camerata. Bar director Alex Negranza worked at numerous Bobby Heugel-led spots, including Anvil Bar & Refuge, Better Luck Tomorrow and Tongue-Cut Sparrow. Rodil traded in Austin for Houston and brought a host of accolades with her, including being one of only two women to become Master Sommeliers in 2015.
The buzz proved to be more than mere noise. The proof begins with the warmly hued, narrow, two-story building in which March resides. Entering the foyer and wondering where the stairs and elevator lead begins the drama. The first stop on the second floor is the lounge, where guests are stationed for about half an hour. While enjoying a complimentary glass of Negranza’s seasonal housemade vermouth and any other drinks they order, guests are served utterly fascinating snacks including a luxurious Foie Gras Alfajor. The lounge is also prime people-watching territory. Trust me, this is not an inconvenient wait. It’s a luxurious respite. If you like martinis and can cope with the $24 price tag, do not pass up March’s signature version. It’s the best I’ve ever had.
As is the case with many tasting menu restaurants, March’s menu is seasonal and changes on a roughly quarterly basis. Each season explores a different region of the Mediterranean. Currently, March is probing Andalusia and Murcia in Spain, and the resulting menu includes Crudo de Cigala — several slices of fresh langoustine so thin as to collectively create a soft, translucent layer on the plate — topped with garlic, Spanish pine nuts (piñons) and mint; and Rabo de Toro (oxtail “stew” reimagined as a composed dish) with smoked garlic and Calasparra rice (a type grown in Murcia) turned to an emerald hue by incorporating braised greens. The sixth of the six courses was a fragrant, light dessert offering delicate textures: Naranja y Azafran, or Orange and Saffron, with candied almonds, vanilla chantilly and mandarin supremes.
I didn’t connect with every dish of the tasting. The thinly sliced langoustines of the first course had a challenging, gelatinous texture (I still ate every bite of it) and pomegranate brought an unwelcome sweetness to a dish featuring slices of trumpet mushroom. That one, I didn’t finish. However, those were the exceptions, not the rule. Each ingredient was selected with care and thought, and I cannot wait for whatever adventure the next menu will present.
On a final note: you may have heard stories about people who spent a small fortune at March. Sure, you can spend as much as you want to, but it’s also possible to visit and control your cost. I was completely satisfied with my $175 six-course meal. I added the March martini while in the lounge, and a solitary glass of sparkling Raventos i Blanc de Nit Rosé from Penedes, Spain served me well through most of dinner. Those snacks and that extra glass of vermouth went a long way, too. My grand total was under $300. No, it’s not cheap , but it’s sure not as expensive as going to Alinea . As Ferris Bueller would say, “If you have the means, I highly recommend it.” — Phaedra Cook, editor and publisher
Palace Social, 4191 Bellaire: It may seem a little odd to suggest stopping by a gaming center just to try the food, but when it’s chef Ryan Hildebrand designing the menu and chefs Troy Harris and Gabriel Douglas executing the dishes , it’s a suggestion to take seriously.
Palace Social’s menu is surprisingly broad. It includes 10 sandwiches, including two different burgers that sport a half-pound Hereford-beef patty, and nine entrées. A particular favorite is the Palace Chicken Fried Steak topped with sausage gravy and accompanied by Texas Toast from Breadman Baking Co.
For sides, a server recommended the black beans, and he did not mislead us. Cooked with garlic, onion, bell peppers, tomato and oregano, these would be right at home on a Caribbean table accompanied by some roasted plantains. It’s also hard to argue with potatoes mashed with plenty of buttermilk and butter, or perfectly cooked servings of spinach seasoned with chopped garlic.
There’s a cocktail program, too, designed by Jennifer Caldwell, formerly of Goodnight Hospitality. Her drinks for Palace Social are a mix of highly approachable — frozen Bellinis and Ranch Water — and just-ambitious-enough-for-this-type-of-venue, such as the Social Club with Plantation 3 Star rum, raspberry, lime and aquafaba (liquid from chickpeas used instead of egg white to thicken cocktails and keep them vegan-friendly).
While it’s a worthy stop for food explorers, Palace Social’s core audience is destined to be Bellaire residents who will treat it as a beloved neighborhood restaurant, gaming aficionados and older kids who will be happy to ditch mom and dad in the restaurant area while they go play games.
Better still: have dinner as a family and then everyone can blow off some steam. I had a fantastic time playing skee ball and other games. The virtual shoot-em-up experience, Dark Ride, was incredibly fun and highly recommended. — Phaedra Cook, editor & publisher
Post Market, 401 Franklin: Houston’s newest gourmet food hall is hitting its early strides thanks to offering the international flair that made the city’s culinary scene famous. POST is the first completed project in the transformation of the former Barbara Jordan Post Office into a high-end destination with a hotel, shopping mall and concert venue. Post Market is the food and beverage portion of the new space. It is located where Sawyer Heights, the Theater District and the Downtown Historic District all come together and is designed to serve as a hub for all three.
The architectural details of the space are impressive and interactive. Three jaw-dropping staircases gild the center and most lead up to the amazing Skylawn, a “Texas-sized rooftop park with an urban farm.” It offers scenic views of downtown in a traditional park setting.
The restaurants in the food court consist of long-cherished businesses and exciting newcomers. Here are a few of the most interesting:
The food options at POST are growing daily, and a full list can be found online . While there are more eateries to come, there are already plenty of enticing places to go visit right now. — Staci Davis, food & beverage writer
Railway Heights, 8200 Washington: Railway Heights builds on Houston’s prior generations of food halls and offers a mix of not only top-notch food stands but also a small produce and meat market, as well as dozens of artisans selling clothing, soaps, art and more.
There are no shortages of food and drink options at Railway Heights. The entryway alone has a coffee shop, creamery and crepe stand. One of the first restaurants you will see upstairs is Peaky Grinders, a stand where employees grind meat onsite for its hot dogs and already-acclaimed burgers. You will also find chef Ben McPherson’s second concept, BOH Slice, a build-your-own Roman pizza stand from parent restaurant BOH Pasta and Pizza. The Railway Heights’ outlet of League City’s popular Polish eatery, Pierogi Queen, is there too, is serving a rotating selection of buoyant pierogi stuffed with fillings such as potatoes and onions or potatoes, cabbage and bacon. Next door at Mykuna, chef David Guerrero’s second food hall location on this list (see Post Market above), is serving Latin-Asian fusion fare inspired by the Nikkei cuisine developed by Japanese immigrants to Peru. There are also three bars: a beer garden, a cocktail bar next to the outdoor park and a wine bar centrally located upstairs. — Ryan Kasey Baker, food and beverage writer
Sao-Lao Thai Café, 5013 North Shepherd: In October, Souli Phaduangdet and her husband John Tapia traded in the wheels of their popular Pho-Jita Fusion food truck for a brick-and-mortar on a wide expanse of North Shepherd. It borders Shepherd Park Place and Independence Heights — a stretch that includes Houston institutions such as Wabash Feed & Garden Store, B & W Meat Company and Esther’s Cajun Café & Soulfood.
Since opening, they have been serving a focused selection of Thai and Laotian food. Diners won’t find pad Thai, but they will find flavor-packed, unctuous Lao sausage — that rivals any in the city — served with sticky rice and a Lao tomato sauce. There is also nam khao, a texture-rich Lao salad that combines crispy fried rice, shreds of coconut, green onions and fermented pork. Diners are encouraged to wrap the mix with the crisp lettuce leaves that are wedged into the side of the bowl.
Guests also shouldn’t miss the spicy papaya salad or the Filet Mignon Beef Laab, another textural delight that combines thin slices of filet mignon with well-prepared tripe, chili peppers and a generous handful of mint. Be sure to save room for one of the steaming bowls of curry, such as the redolent Thai red curry, or soup, like Boat Noodle Soup with sliced rib eye, pork meatballs, rice noodles, Asian kale, bean sprouts, celery and cilantro floating in a rich broth.
I’ll be back to try the rest of the menu and to re-experience the friendly service. I might also bring a bottle of wine or some Thai beer since Sao-Lao is BYOB (with a $5 corkage fee). You might want to do the same when you go, which I recommend you do. — David Leftwich, associate editor
Tiny Champions, 2617 McKinney: The name of this east-of-downtown restaurant from the group behind Nancy’s Hustle refers to the beneficial microbiota that give us fermentation and make bread rise. Tiny Champions celebrates these little guys in many ways, including its pizza dough and pickles.
The ambiance is refreshingly unstuffy in the modest dining room outfitted with plain wooden booths and in the spacious backyard. (The tables are nicely spaced in both the dining room and patio.)
On the menu are shareable dishes with veg- and meat-focused ingredients. Vegetarians will find plenty of options, such as the melt-in-your-mouth s moky fried mozzarella balls served with chunky marinara, delectable braised butter beans and t hinly shaved cremini mushroom salad. Carnivores can enjoy whey-brined fried chicken served with Vietnamese herbs, or wahoo crudo with olive tapenade and Meyer lemon. Guests rave about the complex, thin and naturally leavened pizza crusts. Opt for toppings such as pineapple, speck and jalapeño or anchovy fillets, tomato sauce and sliced garlic. For dessert, the Hazelnut Roll Cake is a favorite.
The natural fermentation theme extends to the beverage program, too. One can always find a selection of orange wines such as Eschenhof Holzer “the Natural” Orange Gewurtz from Austria, and cocktails such as the Chutney Chilada made with Pacifico beer, mangos and chili. Visit for happy hour Tuesday through Thursday from 5 to 6 p.m. when pizzas and oysters served with cocktail sauce and pickle juice mignonette are deeply discounted. Pair with specials from beverage director Bridget Paliwoda that include wines by the glass and select cocktails. — Staci Davis, food & beverage writer
URBE, 1101 Uptown Park: James Beard-award winner Hugo Ortega’s and James Beard-semifinalist Tracy Vaught’s new Mexican-street-food restaurant in the Galleria area’s Uptown Park offers breakfast, lunch, brunch and dinner — a first for the team behind Hugo’s, Xochi, Caracol and Backstreet Café. Focused on Ortega’s love and exploration of Mexican street food, the menu includes various masa-based offerings such as tacos and huarache — sandal-shaped masa cakes topped with lush carnitas, vegetal rajas, tangy salsa verde and queso fresco.
The standout dish is the vegetarian Tacos De Camote A Las Brazas, a simple-yet-elegant blend of gently charred, yet pillowy roasted sweet potatoes, creamy goat cheese that offers a hint of tang and galvanic, earthy salsa macha — it was one of the best things I ate this year.
But masa isn’t the only star of this street food-focused restaurant. Don’t miss the totra ahogada — drowned sandwich in Spanish — which combines succulent pork with a sourdough roll (based on a bread from Guadalajara, Mexico) that has been dipped in a spicy chile de árbol sauce. There is also a head-sized chicharron that is as tasty as it is Instagram-worthy.
Finally, don’t miss the panaderia counter offering a host of classic Mexican desserts and pastries, or the cocktails created by Sean Beck, Ortega and Vaught’s longtime beverage director. — David Leftwich, associate editor
Winnie’s, 3622 Main: It would be hard for me not to like a restaurant that shares a name with my puppy, who will soon be a year old. That said: there are reasons that could make anyone love Winnie’s. Graham Laborde, Chris Roy and Benjy Mason worked together at the late, great Bernadine’s and have created a laid-back, sandwich- and cocktail-focused restaurant in Midtown. After presenting it at pop-ups last year, they now have a permanent home for their Peacemaker Po-Boy, which has fried Gulf oysters and shrimp, cabbage and pickles all layered onto bread from New Orleans’ famed Leidenheimer Baking Company that’s been dressed with Duke’s Mayonnaise. It’s a transcendent Gulf Coast experience.
Winnie’s is also the home of what might be the sandwich of the year: the BLT Katsu Sando. This Japanese-inspired riff on the classic BLT pairs braised bacon, which has been dipped in panko breadcrumbs and then fried, with pillowy milk bread, tart pickled green tomatoes, crisp shredded cabbage and creamy, umami-rich mayo. It’s a texture-rich cannonade of comforting flavors.
The team also offers a Mississippi Beef Debris Po-Boy filled with chopped pot roast that’s been spiked with crunchy Cool Ranch Doritos. Compared to the first two sandwiches, it’s not my go-to, but it certainly fits a certain flavor-seeking, late-night niche. There are also a handful of other sandwiches and a selection of worthy appetizers and sides such as Fried Pickled Okra, Pimento Queso and a variety of oysters: East Coast, Gulf Coast and chargrilled.
As they say on TV infomercials: But wait, there’s more! Winnie’s also serves well-crafted cocktails developed by Garrett Jones, formerly of Johnny’s Gold Brick, and Tina Marie Brackett, formerly of ‘93 Til and The Sugar Room. Try the frozen Raspberry Negroni and the sharp and stimulating Hemingway Daiquiri, or indulge in the New Orleans-inspired Hand Grenade Collins, a bright green concoction of vodka, midori, honeydew melon and kiwi. – David Leftwich, associate editor
Editor’s Note: we previously misidentified the current onsite chefs at Palace Social and regret the error.
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