This was no ordinary year for Houston restaurants. Eager diners often resort to such hyperbole—but this year, there are ample facts to back it up. While other cities have struggled through fallow periods over the last 12 months, Houston’s chefs and restaurateurs have pushed themselves creatively and financially, and with these big risks come big rewards.
Of course, in a city of Houston’s size, we have to acknowledge an important truth: It’s impossible to sum up as rich a year as we’ve had in just 10 restaurants. But choose we must. And not surprisingly in a town known as Mutt City, it’s an eclectic bunch.
Geographically, our picks range from the man-made lakeshores of The Woodlands to a shopping center in Sugar Land. The Heights claims two entries among the top 10, while Montrose (or Montrose-adjacent) is responsible for three. Large restaurant groups are behind a few of our favorites, while others are exciting first endeavors for their owners.
But what ultimately unites this year’s 10 best new restaurants is also what delineates them from one another. Each is unique to our city, whether it’s an enticing blend of pecan-wood smoke and fine dining; exquisite, upscale Oaxacan cuisine; or delicate, artfully prepared bento boxes rarely found outside of Japan. We can now claim these masterful menus as part of our ever-growing, wildly flavored gustatory landscape, just waiting to be explored.
Best New Restaurant: Killen's STQ
Passing through a fragrant curtain of smoke emanating from the pecan wood–fired pits is a diner’s grand entrance to a truly novel experience. Neither a barbecue restaurant nor a steakhouse, nor even a synthesis of the two, Killen’s STQ offers something far more than the sum of its parts: an evening of fine dining, magnified by soon-to-be legendary service, boasting refined foods kissed with smoke and classic cocktails that beg to be enjoyed with a post-prandial cigar.
The best bets include what is almost certainly the only smoked filet mignon in Houston, and likely one of few on offer anywhere. From its crown of waving bonito flakes to the pool of mushroom broth in which the steak rests, it’s an umami bomb that’s almost memorable enough to make the whole meal. But you’ll want to hold something back for the showstopping smoked chocolate cake, which makes its rock star entrance from beneath a smoke-filled cloche. It’s a Black Forest gâteau with all the chocolate-on-chocolate layers of cake, dense ganache and cherries cossetted in cream that you’d wish for, outstanding in its opulence even without the smoke.
It could all very easily go overboard, but this combustible mix of wood and fire produces the perfect chemical equation to blend fine dining with Texas flavor. The result: Ronnie Killen’s first restaurant within Houston city limits is a blazing success.
Best Finale: Xochi
To many pastry chefs, it’s just dessert. To Ruben Ortega, it’s complex, cerebral artwork that happens to be conceived in an edible medium. What he’s created for his James Beard Award–winning big brother Hugo Ortega’s earlier restaurants—Backstreet Café, Hugo’s and Caracol—has always stood out, especially anything with his famously house-roasted cacao beans. But at Xochi, in downtown’s Marriot Marquis, he’s reimagined what dessert can be.
More than half of the postres menu at the Oaxacan restaurant is devoted to chocolate in all its forms, and appropriately so: Oaxacan culinary culture is obsessed with cacao. But as much as we crave the melting pebbles of chocolate ice cream that, along with gold leaf, top the nut-filled molten chocolate tart of the piedras y oro, the smartest choices are Ortega’s inventions showcasing other ingredients.
Observe the plátano crujiente, a wood-roasted segment of plantain sitting upright in a crispy jacket of Shredded Wheat–esque kataifi pastry topped with lemon foam. It sits in a sea of chocolate ganache surrounded by lemongrass crème anglaise; an island of poleo ice cream, which tastes like soft mint, rises nearby.
The complex sweets are visually stunning, but it’s the pastry chef’s high-wire acts of balanced flavors (often incorporating herbs or fruits little seen outside Mexico, like musky nanche and the aforementioned poleo) that steal the show from his brother’s own impressive creations.
Best New Chef: Hilda Ysusi, Broken Barrel
At just 28, Hilda Ysusi owns The Woodlands’s most ambitious new restaurant. The spacious waterside spot is the only eatery that’s not a chain in the Hughes Landing shopping center. As soon as diners order appetizers, they’re treated to Ysusi’s whimsical, globe-trotting, decidedly non-chain-dining aesthetic.
Perhaps they’ll sample the paella rolled into arancini-like balls, or her habit-forming fried olives with garlic-lemon aioli. Entrées might include market fish draped in garlicky Uruguayan-style chimichurri with a side of Greek-style quinoa, or assemble-your-own pulled-duck tostadas served with hoisin sauce, Peking-style.
The Mexico City native’s career has been similarly varied. Ysusi gained a degree from the Culinary Institute of America before plying her trade in research and development at Nestlé and as corporate chef for a Miami-based sushi company. Now, she’s channeling that wealth of experience into her unique food and beverage menus, including a stable of gin and tonics made with botanicals to complement each spirit—think Hendricks with cucumber and rose.
But perhaps Ysusi and Broken Barrel’s most impressive freshman achievement was taking home a trophy at Houstonia’s inaugural Taco Loco competition, where audience members declared her taco the best of the bunch.
Best Cure for What Ails You: Bacon Bros. Public House
Lonzino. Pancetta. Tasso. They’re all among the pork products hanging in the curing room here, greeting diners through a window facing Sugar Land Town Square. It’s not uncommon to spy pedestrians gawking at this museum of meat, the prelude to an immersive locavore experience rarely found outside the loop. Houstonian Travis Cook found his inspiration for the charcuterie-heavy menu in Greenville, South Carolina, where he fell in love with the original Bacon Bros.
Now, he’s brought those same recipes and methods to a second location, 958 miles away. Everything that hits diners’ plates is handmade by chef Joseph Zerwas and his team: the fiery house spice blend called Devil’s Dust, the rotating selection of hot dogs, and—yes—even the saltine crackers and pimento cheese. The hanging meats—ham, salami and everything in between—are served on butcher’s boards with homemade mustard and pickled veggies. But don’t skip the main course. The barbecue offerings from the in-house pitmaster are a must for meat lovers who like their flesh with an extra dash of care.
Best Continental Cuisine: Café Azur
In Houston, French food often means croque monsieur and onion soup—both classic dishes that hail from Paris, both a bit old-fashioned.
But with the opening of their first Houston restaurant, Sidney and Maria Degaine have lured Francophiles south to his native Côte d’Azur for a lighter, more modern meal. Since opening, they’ve added tenderloin tartare and steak-frites to please holdover customers from the restaurant’s predecessor, Brasserie Max & Julie. But the lion’s share of the menu is resolutely Degaine’s.
The chef’s signature Perfect Egg oozes silken yolk into airy potato foam in an appetizer that primes diners for a repast replete with surprises. His pastas are rolled ethereally thin, then baptized in luxe ingredients like braised ox cheek or truffles. His desserts, however, are the true coup de grâce, whether he’s mixing liquid-nitrogen ice cream dramatically à la table, plating a curry-scented chocolate bombe as shiny as patent leather, or serving vibrant-green pistachio mousse sunken with boozy cherries.
And as the inviting dining room decked out in Mediterranean white-and-blue—one wall plastered with an oversize photo of Bardot—will attest, there’s nothing fusty about the place.
Best Barbecue Upgrade: The Pit Room
Historically, barbecue has been a cuisine not just steeped in but stuck in the past. In recent years, however, Houston’s joints—including Pappa Charlies BBQ, Tejas Chocolate Craftory and Pinkerton’s Barbecue—have all joined the movement toward updated, creative ’cue that has burst, like a perfectly smoked link of juicy sausage, into the 21st century.
And none has done so with quite the gusto of the Pit Room. Bramwell Tripp considers himself an executive chef first, pitmaster second—and this distinction shows in his elevated fare. Yes, the meaty basics are all accounted for: There’s brisket so sweet and soft it almost enters the realm of pastry, and sausages, including Czech-style beef and garlicky, black-pepper-spotted venison, stuffed in-house. But Tripp’s creativity is at its peak when he uses the status quo as a springboard into something more interesting.
Consider his barbecue-filled tacos in tortillas made with smoked brisket fat, which have attracted a well-earned cult following; his vegetables, served both pickled and smoked with greens and a lemon vinaigrette in the market salad, which make for a handy way to get something healthy at a barbecue joint; his warm jalapeño-and-vinegar-flavored potato chips; his gelato-filled cookie sandwiches. All of these dishes wow. Tripp isn’t afraid to run with his own scrumptious ideas in a field of prescribed classics.
Best Use of a Garden: Presidio
It’s easy to miss the garden near the entrance. After all, the building, which once housed Java Java Café, is simply too welcoming for visitors to lollygag around looking at budding cherry tomatoes. Within, there’s much to see: walls covered in maps and recipes from historic Houston books, a bar with a roll-up window serving the popular patio, and live bands entertaining those outdoor diners.
But it’s impossible to overlook what Presidio’s tiny plot of land produces once your meal, selected from the constantly rotating menu, arrives. Examine, for instance, the petite skillet filled with Labranza Farm duck eggs. The tiger-orange yolks are showered with garlicky radish chimichurri, charred scallion aioli, pickled chiles and a pile of assorted herbs, including eminently refreshing mint. Or consider a dessert of melon crémeux, stacked with coriander cake and lemon-verbena ice cream. It’s all you’ll be able to see.
This is chef Adam Dorris, late of Pax Americana, turned loose with the freshest produce available—some from nearby farms, some from his own garden—and it’s like giving Marc Chagall run of a crayon factory. Looking for a meal that’s fresh in every sense of the word? This is the place.
Best Version of the Biggest Trend: Seaside Poke
The year of the Gold Rush was 1849; the Summer of Love, 1967. Similarly, Houstonians will tell their grandchildren about the Great Poké Boom of 2017. Or not. But there’s no doubt that this was the year that Houston went from a handful of spots offering chopped fish over rice to an explosion of restaurants completely devoted to poké.
As should be expected, the quality from eatery to eatery ranges vastly. And among the glut of bargain-basement make-your-own affairs and too-cool-for-school poké doughnuts, the chef-designed creations at Seaside Poke are top of the class.
What started as a pop-up at Doc Holliday’s bar in the Village has landed in a cheerful EaDo loft bedecked with blowfish-shaped photos of Houston icons past and present, from Astroworld to Shipley Donuts. Here, Tai Nguyen and Vuthy “Tee” Srey—previously of Uchi and MF Sushi, respectively—have conceived combinations of local, farm-fresh vegetables like watermelon radishes and Romanesco broccoli, herbs like cilantro and micro-shiso clipped to order at the counter, and special ingredients like garlic chips and truffle oil, to elevate their poké far above their competitors’. You could still make your own, but these chefs deserve your trust.
Best Reinvention of the Classics: Star Fish
Lee Ellis wants you to dip your fries in your beef tartare. It may be an odd directive, but at this paean to coastal cuisine—the latest venture from Ellis and operating partner Jim Mills—the basics are meant to surprise. The fries have been crisped in clarified butter for a result somewhere between movie-theater popcorn and home fries. The tartare? Covered in crispy fried shallots for a flavor as much Vietnamese as it is French.
But as the name and beachy décor suggest, most dishes look to the sea. Oysters are a happy hour hit, but unusual seafood dishes define the menu. Think gnocchi makes no sense served in creamy clam chowder? Think again. The thick soup makes a comforting sauce that suggests a deconstructed pot pie. Or try the jalapeño-glazed scallops with grapefruit and fried slices of avocado.
Lobster tacos, now a Houstonian signature, are extra-special here, their pert pieces of flesh packed into crispy, puffy shells made from blue corn milled just for the restaurant. It’s the perfect dish for pairing with beverage director Laurie Harvey’s cocktails. After all, nothing will remind you of the ocean quite like an oyster shell martini made with a tincture of real sea water.
Best Bento Box: Zen Japanese Izakaya
There’s a formula to the average bento box: protein, ginger-dressed salad and, if you’re lucky, a single orange slice for dessert. But not here. The ever-changing jewel boxes served at this nondescript restaurant sparkle with rose-shaped rolls of pickled daikon and cucumber, tender glazed eggplant, shishitos covered in carrot ribbons, and spongy tamago rolls outlined with ebony nori. Meats include wagyu beef (available in limited servings each day), as well as more humble chicken teriyaki, marinated pork, and tonkatsu. There’s no bento like it in Houston.
Thinking outside the box? Authenticity is the hallmark here, no matter what you order. Much of the fish is flown in from Tsukiji Market in Tokyo for sashimi bowls and the multi-course omakase, which must be reserved 10 days beforehand. For an interactive experience that requires no reservation, get the three-part feast of grilled eel, which allows diners to mix and match condiments and broths to prepare their perfect unagi dinner.
Most often, though, Zen’s food leans toward the pleasingly austere. Think dishes like cold soba-and-green-tea-noodle salad and pyramids of rice served in a dashi broth—treasures that, in Houston, are rare indeed.
We couldn't fit every amazing new Houston restaurant on this list. Below, our 9 runners-up:
Better Than Ever in Their New Locations
Chef Kiran Verma returns with elevated Indian fare, including creative tasting menus that focus on vegetarian or lobster-centered dishes.
Ross Coleman and James Haywood’s internationally inspired soul food spot has come a long way from its modest original digs on Canal Street, complete with a chef-curated cocktail menu.
Vatsana Souvannavong has moved on from her former partner and opened her own shop, where she’s focusing on seasonal sweet and savory kolaches and creative doughnuts.
There are a few other items served at this Dallas-born soufflé spot, but it’s fun to make a whole meal out of soufflés. Our go-to: the savory jambon et Gruyère followed by dark chocolate mint.
There are five locations of this prime Japanese steak-and-seafood spot around the country, and Houstonians are lucky to have one of their own for wagyu feasts and tuna flights.
The Austin favorite has won us over with ethically sourced ingredients and big flavors in small, creative packages, like a taco of beef tenderloin in sesame-chipotle sauce.
Sequels As Good As (Or Better Than) Their Predecessors
Owner Claire Smith could easily have kept her beloved Shade as it was; instead, she updated the space and introduced a new seasonal menu for a revamped, modern hit.
Étoile chef and co-owner Philippe Verpiand migrated downtown for his more casual second act, where generous happy hours and a crêpe window draw crowds from Discovery Green.
She might be less refined than her big sister in Rice Village, but this younger Helen boasts classics like pastitsio alongside cocktails made for sipping with your supper.