Image: Kate LeSueur

1. Coltivare

Coltivare co-owners Ryan Pera and Morgan Weber

Image: Kate LeSueur

Chef Ryan Pera and his team at this Heights hot spot are quite simply transforming the way Houstonians think about Italian food—as no longer the province of pizza and pasta (though there are plenty of both on the menu), but a cuisine that’s focused on fresh, seasonal ingredients, many plucked from Coltivare’s own garden. You can dine in that very garden—an inspired idea, that—enjoying dishes such as crab ravioli with sorrel and peas or backyard greens sautéed with anchovies. And don’t be surprised if you find yourself lingering into the night, thanks to an extremely well-priced wine list full of interesting Italian varietals that diners both al fresco and non- will love. 

Image: Kate LeSueur

2. Caracol

Image: Kate LeSueur

In just one year, Hugo Ortega’s new eatery has become the best Mexican seafood restaurant in the country bar none. Then again, the country has only a handful of greats, and at none of them will you find ceviche so artfully arranged it might be mistaken for something at an upscale sushi place. And you won’t find Caracol’s reef-specific Texas oysters, fresh Gulf fish roasted in a wood-fired oven, or exquisite caldos elsewhere either. If it weren’t for Ortega’s other restaurant, the eponymous Hugo’s, Caracol might easily be in the running for best Mexican restaurant in the country, period. 

Image: Kate LeSueur

3. Killen’s Barbecue

Image: Kate LeSueur

Part of the new wave of urban hipster barbecue joints—Franklin’s in Austin, Pecan Lodge in Dallas, and CorkScrew in Spring—Killen’s is serving the best brisket in the Houston area, a distinction among distinctions. True, you have to stand in line to get Ronnie Killen’s juicy meat sliced hot off the smoker. But take an early lunch some weekday and make the trip—if you get there early, there’s not much of a wait. (The barbecue is gone by three in the afternoon most days.) Get the beef ribs, brisket from the fatty end, and house-made sausage, and don’t miss the made-from-scratch creamed corn, smoked beans, and crunchy coleslaw. 

Image: Kate LeSueur

4. MF Sushi

Image: Kate LeSueur

[Ed. Note: MF Sushi closed on October 8; owner Chris Kinjo says the closure is only temporary.]

One four-course tuna tour may be all the proof you need that Chris Kinjo is a master of all things sushi—he gives you firm, meaty, maguro sushi from the side of the fish; pale, succulent kama toro from the cheek; buttery toro from the belly; and striated, pink-and-white o-toro from the front end of the belly, aka the fattiest part. If you really want to see what Kinjo can do, get the multi-course omakase dinner, but his mastery is even in evidence with humble nigiri, that classic slice of fish atop a rectangle of rice. Whereas most sushi chefs pound the gummy rice into a tight wad in their palms, Kinjo delicately prods and pinches the grains into a fluffy roll that barely sticks together, the result being nigiri that literally melts in your mouth. 

Sanguinaccio fritters with horchata ice cream

Image: Kate LeSueur

5. Pax Americana

Chef Adam Dorris and pastry chef Plinio Sandalio

Image: Kate LeSueur

Chef Adam Dorris’s wildly inventive eatery reinvigorates some American classics, offering appetizers like a steak tartare with grilled toast from Common Bond and a half chicken braised with okra, sweet chiles, and peaches, while pastry chef Plinio Sandalio [Ed. Note: Since going to press, Sandalio has left Pax Americana and is no longer affiliated with the restaurant.] holds his own with desserts like sanguinaccio fritters with horchata ice cream. The fine art hanging from its walls is American too (that’s a real Warhol, those are real Harings), but Pax Americana has managed to cultivate a relaxed, yet elegant atmosphere in its dining room, as well as in the adjoining bar, whose cocktail menu hardly departs from the overall theme (grilled peach–infused bourbon Old Fashioneds, anyone?).

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