Photo Above by Julie Soefer
My favorite meal ever was in 2015 during my honeymoon in Crete. On the way home from the beach, my wife and I stopped for dinner at Taverna Alekos, a popular haunt along the main road about six miles south of the Northern coastal city of Rethymno. Owner Joseph sat us out on the patio and proceeded to serve us nearly 10 courses of delicious local food. He told us stories, poured us wine, and gave me a recipe for meatballs I keep locked in my mind.
That experience feels decades old. That kind of delicate, warm, nearly three-hour evening enjoying a freestyle parade of dishes is so different from what most of us have been doing in 2020. Instead, we're eating plenty of takeout meals, masking up and staying apart, and generally keeping our dine-in experiences brief.
Because of how long, wild, and uncertain everything has been and is, writing about restaurants in 2020 isn't about a rating or a ranking. Yes, I have favorite restaurants that opened this year, and you'll hear about them, but what follows are all of the things I've liked this year. That may be a single dish I ate out of a plastic container, multiple meals at one restaurant, the service I encountered during one visit, or even just a really great idea.
For 2020, our best new restaurants are the best new everything in Houston food.
Best Inventive Dish: Belly of the Beast
The creamy masterpiece is Mexican hummus. It's refried chick peas, queso fresco, and almond salsa macha, and it was inspired by chef Thomas Bille's daughter, who identifies as both Armenian-American and Mexican-American. "I never heard of anyone else doing that before," says Bille, who years ago tried refried lentils. The Mexican hummus comes with homemade tostadas, but you may want to order extra to scoop up every last bit.
Best Fried Chicken: Killen's
This might have been the year of fried chicken, a quintessential comfort food necessary in this most uncertain and anxious of years. Some of my favorites include Xin Chao's, as the collaboration between Christine Ha and Tony Nguyen goes with a lemongrass buttermilk wash before the chicken's battered with pandan rice for a textural carnival ride (pro tip: dip your bird in the beef tallow that comes with it). Also, the new East End Thai concept Street to Kitchen pairs its crispy chicken with sauces like chile cilantro and sweet chile. But my favorite of the year is the bird at Killen's, a throwback classic with absurd juiciness and crispiness. As a bonus, it comes with the best freaking mashed potatoes and gravy in the Loop.
Best Place to Watch: Handies Duozo
The modern hand roll craze arrived in Houston late in 2019 with the opening of Hando and Handies Duozo, both located within walking distance of one another in the Heights. I dig Hando, especially its starters, like the edamame avocado dip with its chips, but my favorite of the two is Handies Duozo for its top-notch execution across the board, its snappy and super fresh rolls, its fun selection for sashimi (always get the fatty bluefin otoro), and the guys running the show: Patrick Pham and Daniel Lee, also known as the stars of Kokoro at Bravery Chef Hall. Bringing high energy and inventiveness (these are the guys who put on omakase dinners inside mansions last year), Pham and Lee are two of the brightest stars in the city's culinary show—keep your eye on them.
Best Décor: Musaafer
Mithu and Shammi Malik, owners of the Spice Route Company with restaurants in Nigeria, made their American debut in the spring with this fine-casual restaurant inside the Galleria IV Wing. While the menu from chef Mayank Istwal tweaks expected regional Indian dishes with wonderful flair (I recommend the fish curry), it's the extravagant 11,000-square-foot space that'll really stop you cold.
The labyrinthian Musaafer is broken into multiple dining rooms, from the 26-seat Palace of Mirrors, with more than 200,000 pieces of hand-cut mirror, to the 35-seat Traveler's Room, featuring a 14-foot-tall statue of Musaafer and 16-foot-tall wooden colonnades. Even the outdoor balcony with daybeds is thoughtfully appointed.
Best Street Food: Mico's Hot Chicken
The lines at Mico's Shepherd Drive spot don't lie: The sammich—a hefty cut of hot chicken paired with creamy coleslaw and pickles inside a soft bun—is so good I'm sweating just thinking about it. Kimico and Christopher Frydenlund are heating it up in the Heights.
Runner up: Hotline Burger is the smashburger concept from Phillip Kim of Breaking Bao, located at Underground Hall (the former Conservatory). His patty melt is a triumph with browned but soft Texas toast, melty American cheese, and that gorgeously ragged, kind-of-crispy beef. Yummy.
Best Pizza: Buffalo Bayou Brewing Co.
Opening in late 2019 (technically 2019 was the year of pizza in Houston), Buffalo Bayou's three-story Sawyer Yards temple of beer came complete with a full-service restaurant. The brewery installed Arash Kharat (formerly of Beaver's) as its chef, and he’s been diligently attempting to perfect what we might want to call the Houston-style pizza pie.
These Neapolitan-ish pies, with dough that's fermented for 72 hours, packs tons of flavor, holds sturdy, and has insanely nutty crusts. Go with the River Oaks (roasted garlic, herbed ricotta, truffle arugula) and Navigation Boulevard (smoked pork carnitas, pico de gallo, verde salsa, chihuahua cheese).
Three Favorite Takeout Meals
Kin Dee: The charmingly stylish Heights spot for regional Thai cuisine has some superb menu items. For a recent takeout meal I had the coconut-sweet Southern-style curry, and my kids wolfed down the glass noodles with vegetables like carrots and bok choy. Kin Dee rivals the best Thai restaurants in the city.
Fainmous BBQ: This new, upgraded look and location (Sawyer Yards) for the Tennessee-themed smokehouse needs your attention. Get the tender, Tennessee-style dry-rub pork ribs and pork sliders, using some of the homemade vinegar-and-tomato barbecue sauce for some coating. If it's on offer, definitely get the curry chickpea salad, which I had recently and can't stop thinking about. One of the best single sides at any barbecue spot in town.
El Topo: I visited El Topo days before everything shut down because of Covid-19 and enjoyed fare from a short-lived dinner menu. There was a wagyu burger with smoked American cheese and succulent beef cheek pan-seared and served with pickles, salsas, and homemade tortillas. It was delicious but, sadly, not too many people had the opportunity to experience it.
Fast forward some months, and I just got back there to eat a couple lunch tacos. As most of us in the city know, Tony Luhrman is a wizard in crafting dishes that exude the liveliness of Texas, and his tacos confirm that pretty clearly. The Houston taco—44 Farms beef barbacoa with epazote aioli and pickled onions and herbs—is sublime. The crispy beef taco has an incredible tortilla that hides so much awesome melted cheese. No matter what Luhrman does, I'm there for it.
Best Ambiance: Turner's
I miss narrow New York City dining rooms, where you're bending your body so you don't brush up against some guest's tabletop thin-crust pizza, and you're asking the server to read the menu because the place is so dark it's impossible to see letters, and the bathroom door knocks against your chair and toilet paper is bound to land on your backpack beside the booth because your backpack is always with you—remember, it's New York City.
While it is a narrower, darker, and cozier room, Turner's isn't quite that crazy. Still, the vibe of Benjamin Berg's nod to mid-century, big-city decadence is the closest we have to New York City in Houston, and it's spiffy. Take time to view all the art and photographs (all the black-and-white photos were taken in 1978, the year Berg was born), then curl up with a loved one in a comfy booth while a pianist entertains through the night. For a night, it's top of the world.
Best Place to Be: Ostia
Specifically, on the patio at Travis McShane's return to Houston is where I want to be. Give me a glass of Sangiovese and order me the pork chop Milanese, a hefty and tender cut meant for a couple of party guests. I'll be happy all evening with that alone. Of course, there's also the half chicken, perfectly browned with a lemony tweak. That dish is a nod to McShane's mentor Jonathan Waxman, who created the definitive version of half chicken at New York's Barbuto. Ostia feels a lot like a New York restaurant with some Cali effortlessness ... or exactly the kind of place that would open in Texas in 2020.
Best Single Meal: Bludorn
It’s been a year. Every day is a battle over how much work can get done, who might have to watch the kids, and what precautions we have to take so we can stay healthy. I haven’t seen my family or best friends in over a year. More often than usual I’ve felt off, even lost.
All of that washed away the first time I visited Bludorn, though. There was general manager Cherif Mbodji, with a glowing smile and conversation like we’re old friends. There was an unceasing chatter in the cool dining room of navy banquettes. Cocktails and bread arrived, then thoughtful plates that told the story of a chef raised in the Pacific Northwest, trained in the Bay Area and New York, and settling in Houston: roasted chicken in pea puree, bacon-wrapped quail, tuna crudo, and a whole lot of oysters.
I got lost pretty quickly, and in the best way. Then I realized there were partitions and curtains in the dining room, hand sanitizer all over the place, and digital wine lists passed around on Kindle devices. I couldn't forget for too long what year it was, but being at Bludorn, at least for a little while, I could let go.
With that ...
Best Restaurant: Bludorn
This is my favorite in 2020, the kind of restaurant that's been missing in Houston. Here, an outsider with considerable clout comes in and produces a must-visit American standard right out of the gates. Chef Bludorn seems relentless in his pursuit for perfect menu items—his latest trick being a superbly rich uni spaghetti—and his staff follows suit (for instance, if a server tells you he's experimenting with a cocktail on the side, take the bait). Bludorn is special. Go.