Houston's best new restaurants of 2018

By Alison Cook

Best-new-restaurants lists are in season right now, but what do they mean, really? It varies with the critic and the publication. My take this year includes spots that excited my imagination as well as my palate. It’s a wildly diverse group that I hope expresses the rich dining landscape of this Houston moment.

The list is personal. And in almost every instance, it’s based on multiple visits.

You’ll notice that two restaurants on the list opened at the end of last year. They were the ones that got away, so now I’ve made them eligible for their moment in the sun. Similarly, restaurants that opened this December — including the ones in the ambitious new Finn Hall development downtown — were not considered for this year’s list.

I don’t kid myself that inclusion on this list guarantees anything. Out of last year’s “best new” group, two have already closed: Maba Pan-Asian Diner and Aqui. Another one, Oxbow 7, lost its high-profile chef as I prepared to review it. It’s a jungle out there.

But what an alluring jungle. There were plenty of restaurants that belong in my honorable mentions for 2018: the inventive Feges BBQ in the futuristic setting of Greenway Plaza’s food court. Phat Eatery, a promising Malaysian spot in the exciting new Katy Asiatown — with its proximity to the Beard Papa’s cream-puff franchise as an added bonus. The feisty little Cantina Barba taqueria, a boon for night owls.

I’m eager to return to Cuc Lam’s casual Sing, a Singaporean semi-serve with clever drinks, superb Thai beef skewers and a take on crab rangoon that will make you rethink your opinions on this oft-maligned pu pu platter staple. And I can’t wait to check out the new décor and high-flying menu revamp from Austin Simmons at Tris, his rebranding of Hubbell & Hudson Bistro in The Woodlands.

I didn’t count Tris as a new restaurant, but I do count it as an exciting development. There was an encouraging surge of those in the suburbs this year, from Katy to the west side to points north, even unto Tomball.

 

No telling what 2019 may bring. Stay hungry, Houston.

1. GEORGIA JAMES

No one is more surprised than I am to be ranking a steakhouse as my favorite new restaurant. But Chris Shepherd’s Georgia James, polished and refined from its too-short run at the chef’s One Fifth, expresses a vivid Houston sensibility in a way I haven’t tasted since Killen’s Steakhouse opened in 2006. It’s not just the dry-aged steaks given a taut sear with butter basting in cast iron that give the menu such personality. It’s the reinvention of timeworn steakhouse staples. A wedge salad becomes mighty cross-section, the better for a tart, peppery buttermilk dressing to seep into the crevices, with a riotous cargo of Shropshire blue cheese, cured egg yolk, Benton’s bacon and enlivening fresh dill riding on top. Instead of the usual carbs, there’s a savory cornbread pudding packing some heat and stretchy cheese. Creamed spinach becomes collards so opulent and earthy they make your head spin. Shellfish appear not as shrimp cocktail but as crab fingers baptized with nuoc mam and bristling with crunchy fried garlic bits. I actually daydream about the silky chicken liver mousse and the wood-oven apple pie with its scorchy crust. The service hums along in the big, warm space revamped from the bones of Underbelly, and there’s an inviting long bar where solo diners can sneak in. Pricey? You bet. But there’s value and joy delivered. 1100 Westheimer; 832-241-5088; georgiajamessteak.com

2. TOBIUO SUSHI & BAR 

Chef Mike Lim’s dazzling sushi talents, on precise display at this ambitious Katy restaurant, mark a high point in a year when suburban dining flowered. His knife skills, keen palate and immaculate treatment of fish put him on a par with such local masters as Manabu HoriuchiChris Kinjo and Adison Lee — and make this sleek modern dining room a destination for sushi aficionados from all over the city. The best way to get a sense of what Lim can do is to book a seat at the counter for one of his $125 omakase (chef’s choice) tastings, where you can see him wield his squeeze bottles of citrus and containers of seasoned salts with finely balanced aplomb. Or sample highlights with the chef’s nightly nigiri set of five or seven pieces at $22 or $28, which might include kamasu, the sumptuous Japanese barracuda; or managatsu, justly known as butterfish, seared lightly on the skin side and contrasted with a dot of hot yuzukosho. Even the rolls are handled with nuance and restraint. The cooked items — from classic hamachi kama (grilled yellowtail) to Shrimp Oba in a fragile tempura cobweb, anchored by a layer of shiso leaf — can shine, too. 23501 Cinco Ranch Blvd., Suite H130, Katy; 281-394-7156; tobiuosushibar.com

3. UB PRESERV

It was a red-letter day when Chris Shepherd hired Momofuku Ssam Bar alumnus Nick Wong to run the kitchen at this downsized, reconfigured and thoroughly exciting version of the late Underbelly. Wong’s delight in our city’s diverse cuisines and local ingredients matches Shepherd’s own. Though the menu can ricochet a little wildly through our culinary repertoires — from Asian to Mexican to African and beyond — when ideas click, the dishes explode with flavor, texture and fun. Share a handful of lively small plates, such as pork dumplings or the herbal crispy rice salad, an instant classic. Or feast on a large-format, crisp-skinned boneless Texas heritage chicken, stuffed with Chinese-sausage-and-mushroom sticky rice and lit up by a relish of crunchy greens and chiles. You can let the kitchen steer your course with a $55 “tour of Houston” tasting menu for two or more. And on weekends, there’s a dim sum brunch. Add a brilliantly matched cocktail program by Westin Galleymore (love those crazy communal Tiki bowls!) and the usual smart, small-producer wine list by Matthew Pridgen, and you’ve got a vital new cog in the Houston dining scene. 1609 Westheimer; 346-406-5923; ubpreserv.com

4. RESTAURANT INDIGO

Dining at this audacious restaurant is like attending a one-man off-Off-Broadway play. In a spare modern room, chef Jonny Rhodes uses each of five courses on a choice of three “neo-Soul” tasting menus to talk — with passion and a sardonic sense of humor — about the African diaspora and its intersection with contemporary black history and culture. It would be fascinating even if the former Marine and University of Houston history student weren’t so gifted at coaxing deep, earthy umami flavors from his seasonal ingredients, which he has been curing, fermenting and pickling for years in preparation for this project. At their best, Indigo dishes grab you by the lapels, shake you up and set you down in a new place. They can be as lovely as a bonnet of ember-roasted autumn squash outlined in sunflower petals, filled with 2-year-old gourd pickles and grounded by a spicy benne-seed sauce; or as funky as a shrimp and wild boar andouille gumbo with Carolina Gold rice. Even the roasted okra-seed coffee substitute to finish the meal is a revelation. That Rhodes and his wife, Chana, do all this in a tiny kitchen, with a tiny staff and only charcoal and wood to cook with (there’s not even a gas hookup), is all the more remarkable. Rhodes grew up in this modest Northline neighborhood, and his dream is to bring new life to this relative food desert. Indigo is a great start. 517 Berry; 832-582-6388; htxindigo.com

5. WILLOW’S TEXAS BBQ

It’s a sign of Houston’s increasing barbecue fortunes that one of our best new restaurants is a food truck parked in the backyard of a beer bar near the Heights. But what a truck Willow Villarreal’s is: dispensing purist classics of USDA Prime brisket, ribs, sausage and pulled pork that are among the best the city has to offer. His post-oak-fueled convection cooker produces a clear, pure smoke flavor; his charry crusts of bark pop out; and the perfectly rendered fats glisten. Add partner Jasmine Barela’s lively, inventive sides and desserts, plunk the whole package in a magical outdoor setting and atmospheric saloon, and you’re in a very Texas kind of heaven. 1115 W. 19th; 713-962-9913;facebook.com/willowstexasbbq

6. PHO GA DONG NAI 

The purity and grace of the Vietnamese soups produced at this Asiatown newcomer make it a fast Houston classic. The specialty is chicken pho — including the dry variety — utilizing regionally sourced, free-range organic birds, which makes for a particularly expressive chicken flavor. But the beef pho variants are worthy, too. Even a deceptively simple-sounding mien ga, a chicken soup with cellophane noodles, comes to the table afloat with savory-sweet shallots frizzled in garlic oil, a tiny touch with big impact. Shake in some white pepper and luxuriate. Proprietors Kim Nguyen, her sister Judy Dang and her niece Christine Dang run a friendly, spic-and-span shop that has major bang for the buck. 11528 Bellaire, Suite G; 281-530-2323; facebook.com/PhoDongNai

7. NANCY’S HUSTLE

This relaxed corner bistro in rapidly evolving EaDo is one of the most inviting hangs in town. It opened too late to make last year’s best-new list, but it deserves a place on this one for chef Jason Vaughan’s assertive Euro-inflected fare, partner Sean Jensen’s intriguing wine selections, Kristine Nguyen’s cocktails and pastry chef Julia Doran’s serious breads. I confess I’d come just to eat their whipped cultured butter, especially as an accessory to the iconic Nancycakes — griddlecakes of Doran’s house-ground cornmeal topped with briny orange trout roe. Immaculate salads, wood-grilled chicken with blistered scallion and spicy Turkish lamb dumplings are the kind of dishes that would make me happy to eat here several times a week. 2704 Polk; 346-571-7931;nancyshustle.com

8. POITIN

The vast industrial room is dramatic. So is the view of the downtown skyline and the occasional train rattling through on the backyard railroad tracks. The bar program is impressive, and it features the Irish moonshine that lends the place its name. (Say puut-CHEEN.) But it’s the eclectic food from chef Dominick Lee that gives Poitín its dynamic personality. Lee brings his New Orleans Creole heritage to bear on global ideas gathered from his diverse young staff, including the sumptuous whole smoked and flash-fried chicken with laing greens, a Filipino inspiration made from taro leaves simmered in coconut milk. Collard pesto adds a vegetal undertone to rosy slices of duck. Best of all, I’m left eager to see what this deftly managed restaurant will do next. 2313 Edwards, Suite 100; 713-470-6686;poitinhouston.com

9. KULTURE

Chef Dawn Burrell used to be an Olympic long jumper. Now she heads the kitchen at one of downtown Houston’s most interesting restaurants, a neo-Soul inspiration from The Breakfast Klub owner Marcus Davis. In a theatrical, glass-walled space on a prime corner of Avenida Houston, Burrell rethinks the food of the African diaspora. Her dishes are delicately detailed, from fluffy fried okra pods to a creamy, luxurious collard dip to eat with the little rice fritters known as calas. Even a house salad turns special with pecan ranch dressing and green tomato croutons. One of the most memorable dishes I ate this year was Burrell’s blackened cabbage wedge with bacon vinaigrette and onion soubise. It’s gold-medal stuff. 701 Avenida de las Americas; 713-357-9697;facebook.com/KultureHouston

10. JUST GRK 

It opened at the tail end of November last year, missing its chance for the 2017 list. But my admiration for this splendid, focused, strip-mall Greek sandwich shop and grill guarantees its place on this one. Chef Chris Nikolas cooks everything — from chicken souvlaki to peerless fresh-cut french fries to thick, satin-smooth tzatziki — with verve and authority. He elevates small orbs of ground beef to fantastically crusty, herbal heights. Even his house-made hot sauce (a nod to Houston tastes) is landmark stuff. He’ll make you a custom multi-meat-and-sides platter, too, just like your favorite barbecue joint. A BYOB policy, affordable prices and a warm welcome from Anastasia Nikolas, the chef’s sister, wrap up this nifty west-side package in a beguiling bow. 11325 Interstate 10 W.; 832-623-6048; justgrk.com

11. LA LUCHA

This handsome newcomer from Atlanta-based, Houston-born Ford Fry is too dim and midcentury loungelike to remind me of the late, great San Jacinto Inn, the all-you-can-eat chicken/biscuits/seafood joint that was his inspiration. But dang, under chef Bobby Matos, the fried-to-order chicken can be fabulous, paired with plush biscuits and honey sambal, a very 21st-century Houston touch. The cornmeal-dusted fried shrimp are first-rate, too, particularly with a swaggery white remoulade; and the drippy, paper-wrapped, Pharmacy Burger is one of the city’s best. Don’t even get me started on the cheerfully demented oyster loaf, either. A big selection of bubbles, half-shell oyster specials and a wonderful outdoor dining deck add to the fun. 1801 N. Shepherd; 713-955-4765; laluchatx.com

12. KAU BA SAIGON KITCHEN & BAR 

You might have seen chef Nikki Tran in the Houston episode of Dave Chang’s Netflix series, “Ugly Delicious.” She was cooking her own quirky “Viejun” food in Saigon, but now she’s back in her former hometown with a highly personal take on Vietnamese cuisine spliced with Cajun ideas. Her menu is unlike any Vietnamese menu in town, with its fresh, kaleidoscopic salads and a wild combo platter, the French Invasion, that highlights the chef’s marvelous gift for sauces. I could eat her shrimp and pork dumplings every day; when a server attempted to remove the dish of vinegar-sesame-chile dip, I practically broke his arm. Fresh, fun cocktails and mocktails are an added attraction. I’m told some Vietnamese customers have found the food “weird.” To which I say, yes, that’s the point. 2502 Dunlavy, Suite B; 713-497-5300;kaubakitchen.com

Alison Cook is the Chronicle’s James Beard Award-winning restaurant critic. Follow her on Twitter, and keep up with Houston’s latest dining and drinking news and reviews by subscribing to our free Flavor newsletter.