Best Restaurants 2019

The 20 Best Things We Ate in Houston This Year

These dishes from 20 new restaurants are already Houston classics.

By Timothy Malcolm, Gwendolyn Knapp, and Alice Levitt Published in the October 2019 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Image: Amy Scott

Brisket Enchiladas | Killen’s TMX

Ronnie Killen has brought his barbecue expertise to his Tex-Mex emporium, with fantastic results. You need a plate of his brisket enchiladas. While smoky chopped beef would be perfectly at home in a bun with barbecue sauce, wrapped in a tortilla with ancho chile sauce, it’s alchemical. A layer of Oaxaca cheese, charro beans, and yellow rice complete the delicious picture.

Brisket Fried Rice | Blood Bros. BBQ

Three friends from Alief, known for their barbecue pop-ups, recently got their own brick-and-mortar smokehouse in Bellaire, Blood Bros. With a Vietnamese pitmaster and influences from African American to Korean ’cue and beyond, the spot is redefining a familiar genre.

“Because we do the regular stuff well now, I’m not afraid to introduce those other things,” says Quy Hoang, who owns the restaurant with Robin and Terry Wong. “We started experimenting with different flavors that we grew up with.” The resulting “Houston-inspired dishes,” as Hoang calls them, have become Blood Bros.’s calling card: offerings like gochujang beef belly burnt ends and a killer brisket fried rice.

Carbonara di Uni | Blackbird Izakaya

Carbonara on its own is comfort food, but this Japanese street-food hangout takes the dish to an entirely different plane with creamy sea urchin sauce, a fresh slice of uni, green onions, and crunchy nori seaweed. You’ll want to enjoy the dish during happy hour, when house sake is just $3. 

Charred Carrots | Indianola

Even more all-over-the-map—in a good way—is EaDo’s Indianola, the latest from Houston restaurant group Agricole Hospitality (Coltivare, Night Heron), whose partners have roots spanning Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, and Central Texas. Naturally they hired a British guy to lead the kitchen. “Everyone here worked together to make a lovely, vibrant thing that we are still trying to perfect,” says executive chef Paul Lewis.

Indianola’s entire menu is a mashup, from Mexican-style trout with salsa Veracruz, to creamy blue crab dip straight out of Baltimore, to ribs slathered in fermented chile paste, to charred carrots with California-style Green Goddess dressing and quinoa.  “The question we ask,” says Lewis, “is, what is American food?” It’s a big question, of course, and somehow not surprising that if any city is going to figure out the answer, it’s Houston.

Image: Amy Scott

Char-Grilled Oysters | Neyow’s Creole Cafe

When a plate of chargrilled oysters arrives at your table, butter still bubbling inside the shells, with slices of light-as-air French bread stacked right on top, you know you’re at a place that gets it. Consider yourself lucky that one of New Orleans’s finest purveyors has brought these parmesan-topped, garlicky bivalves to town at this convivial new restaurant and bar.

Image: Amy Scott

Chicken and Biscuits | La Lucha

What’s better than a platter of amazingly crunchy, succulent fried chicken? One that also includes dense, buttery, salty biscuits, along with all the little pick-me-ups—sweet pickles, sweeter-still honey with a sambal kick, smoky oyster mayo—on its heaping metal tray. 

Zaatar chicken sausage

Clean Eating | Vibrant

Before ordering at Vibrant in Montrose, pick up your free astrology report—printed on expensive cardstock, of course—and soak up the wellness-retreat vibes, which continue on the gluten-free, dairy-free, refined-sugar-free, locally sourced menu. Elixirs, juices, bone broth, and clean eats are on tap during the easygoing daytime counter service, but at night you can trade your juice for a glass of natural wine and a beautifully plated entrée. Get the delightful zaatar chicken sausage and the snapper crudo laced with yuzu and ginger.

At left, the ribeye volcán taco. At right, the bistec costra.

Costra Tacos | La Vibra Tacos

We dare you to find a better comfort food than this Mexico City–style delicacy. Costra (literal translation, “crust”) is best explained as a griddled gouda envelope filled with your protein of choice—favorites include bistec (1855 angus sirloin), plump fried camarón (shrimp), and sultry raja (peppers)—on a perfectly rendered flour tortilla, topped with one of the cute eatery’s house-made salsas.

Croaker Plate | Taste of Nigeria

A popular dinner party treat in Nigeria, peppered fish stimulates all the senses. This cozy spot serves up an irresistible version: croaker, either grilled or fried, doused in a fiery, slightly sweet pepper-and-onion sauce. Paired with smoky, tangy jollof rice, it’s among the best dishes in the city.

Image: Mai Pham

Hot Pot | Shabu Zone

The term shabu-shabu is onomatopoeia for the sizzling sound made by a traditional meat-and-veggie-filled Japanese hot pot. Our favorite new shabu-shabu restaurants in Houston both offer their own unique spins on the classic. Shabu Zone, tucked into a corner of Hong Kong City Mall in Asiatown, offers something close to the original dish, but the all-you-can-eat, buffet-style barrage of goodies to be boiled in individual pots is far from traditional. Choose from among half a dozen broth options, then collect your choice of noodles, veggies, and fish balls while freshly sliced wagyu beef is delivered to your table. Enjoy until your stomach sags with liquid love.

Image: Amy Scott

Indian-Spiced Lamb Scotch Egg | 2840 at Dukessa

As co-chef at “global soul food” restaurant Kitchen 713, Ross Coleman gained a reputation for experimenting with international flavors. When that spot closed, diners thankfully didn’t have to wait long for new adventures, as he soon took over the kitchen at this Galleria-area banquet hall and restaurant. At brunch it would be a mistake not to sample this crispy, spicy lamb-wrapped egg with a gloriously molten center.

Image: Jenn Duncan

Khargosh Ki Saounth | Verandah Progressive Indian Restaurant

Rabbit isn’t on most Indian menus, but this place prides itself on being a little different. Sunil and Anupama Srivastava’s exquisite new spot, which follows up their now-closed, much-loved Great W’Kana, features harder-to-find subcontinent treasures like this exceptional cardamom-spiced smoked rabbit with korma sauce and biryani. It’s a tender, juicy, savory ode to a cuisine that deserves our attention.

Image: Amy Scott

Larb Lettuce Wraps | Decatur Bar & Pop-Up Factory

The plan is for chefs to cycle in and out of this new incubator restaurant from revered Houston chef Monica Pope and Axelrad’s Adam Brackman, located in the old Beaver’s spot. We plan to follow the current resident, Chopped champion Evelyn Garcia, wherever she goes, especially if she’s serving up this Thai and Laotian specialty: crisp lettuce and impossibly tangy pork with lemongrass and Thai chiles, served with steamed rice for cooling down.

Image: Amy Scott

Pork Ribs | Truth BBQ

We all know that this newcomer with an original location in Brenham offers excellent brisket—moist and fatty—but here’s a lesser-known truth: It also serves up the best pork ribs in town. With mildly sweet, perfectly seasoned bark giving way to the rich, tender, falling-off-the-bone meat below, they’re so good, you’ll forget the sauce.

Roasted Pork | Siu Lap City

They hang behind glass like treasures in a museum: chickens, ducks, even a hindquarter of a pig. The lines attest to the fact that all the Chinese barbecue on offer here is enticing. But if you only get one item, make it the roasted pork. One crunch through its salty, crackling outside to the juicy, tender interior, and you too will be hooked. 

Image: Jenn Duncan

Shabu-Shabu Lamb | Hu's Cooking

At Hu’s Cooking in West University, chef Wang Yu makes the dish wholly his own with his sizzling paean to chiles and hot oil, “shabu-shabu lamb,” which sings with spearmint and Szechuan peppercorn. The numbing sensation known as “mala” combines with the mint to create something new and strangely refreshing as the tender lamb melts amid the fiery flavors. Just make sure to have plenty of rice on the side to dampen the heat.

Image: Amy Scott

Seafood Charcuterie | 1751 Sea & Bar

Fitting for a restaurant named for the Gin Act of 1751, this innovative Gulf Coast seafood restaurant offers 100 different bottles of the spirit. Pick one, and enjoy it with this gorgeous wooden board, which comes packed with smoked, raw, and cooked seafood. Offerings vary, but a typical evening’s bounty boasts silky salmon gravlax, supple smoked oysters, mussels bathing in oil, and plenty of crusty bread and rye crisps.

Tuna Brisket | Shun Japanese Kitchen

Fans of Shun Japanese Kitchen in River Oaks know to get there early on those select Friday evenings when chef/owner Naoki Yoshida and executive chef Jeff Potts make their tuna brisket. The two take fatty Japanese bluefin collar, slice it up, cure it for 48 hours, coat it with a homemade spice rub, and—finally—smoke it low and slow for about eight hours. 

The result is mind-blowingly delicious and, for some, surprisingly similar to regular beef brisket. “Sometimes the server will take the plate away from the guest, who says, ‘Well, we had the brisket, but we were interested in the tuna collar,’” says Potts. “And the server says, ‘Well, you just ate the tuna collar.’”

The dish is the perfect marriage of the two Houston-born chefs’ different backgrounds. From a young age Yoshida, whose family is originally from Japan, knew he would grow up to work the sushi bar, as his family business is longtime local stalwart Nippon. Potts, meanwhile, trained under the local master of smoked meat, chef Chris Shepherd (Georgia James, One Fifth). The result is a great example of the new style of Houston cuisine.

The Caesar salad at Verdine

Vegan Comfort Food | Verdine

The banquettes might be blue at Verdine in the Heights, the brick-and-mortar outpost from the Ripe food truck team, but the vegans sitting on them surely aren’t. A menu of entirely plant-based vegan comfort food—a Caesar with shiitake ‘bacon” and cashew–pine nut “parmesan,” juicy Beyond Meat burgers, cauliflower-crust pizza, and the best sweet potato fries ever—makes for modern diner fare that’s seasonal, ethical, and sustainable.

Image: Amy Scott

And now, a word from Georgia James’s Baller Board:

Good evening, Houstonians. I can see the desire in your eyes, your mouths hanging open, and … is that drool? Ah, well, I’ve seen it all before. It’s a normal response to me, the culmination of Houston’s meat fantasies, all its gustatory fever dreams, the ultimate in this city’s obsession with culinary excess. I’m a butcher block the size of a small nation, the quintessential Chris Shepherd creation at the quintessential Shepherd restaurant, Georgia James, where ’80s hair metal plays as couples enjoy fancy anniversary dinners alongside two bros just trying to chow down. Anything goes here, and I’m testament: Depending on the night, I might offer up 45-day dry-aged 44 Farms long-bone ribeye, bone-in porterhouse, and new potatoes with smoked trout roe—just because—alongside grilled Alaskan King crab legs, all kinds of veggies, and to keep you on your toes, “lamburger helper.”

I, the Baller Board, am peerless. Now stop drooling and start eating.

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