The Best New Restaurants in Texas for 2019
By Pat Sharpe
Every year I think, “Wow, these new restaurants are all over the map.” Well, this year’s list takes the cake. Among an outstandingly diverse group, you’ll find a sausage specialist, a masa maniac, and a fermenting fanatic. The venues range from an industrial-chic emporium with a stunning skyline view to a teeny converted gas station bedecked with bundles of dried herbs. The chefs include both a youthful newcomer hoping to make a splash and a James Beard Award winner who is known nationwide. If you can’t find something that strikes your fancy, well, you just aren’t hungry.
For this, the eighteenth edition of our roundup, the rules are as follows: For a restaurant to be considered, it must be the first Texas location, and it must have opened between December 1, 2017, and December 1, 2018 (as always, I have a grace period, and this year I’m letting in a Houston restaurant that debuted so quietly in late November 2017 that it escaped my notice). Reopened restaurants are generally not eligible, and I excluded one place that moved and changed its name but basically kept the same menu. Finally, this year’s list has twelve restaurants rather than the usual ten because we grouped three headed by the same chef into one entry. All good? All good—and I mean very good! Let’s eat!
1. UB Preserv, One Fifth Mediterranean, and Georgia James
There are very good years. Frank Sinatra knew a thing or two about those. And then there are great years. Chris Shepherdjust had one of those—and how. In less than six months, the James Beard Award–winning Houston chef opened not one, not two, but three restaurants. First came a convivial Asian/Mexican nook for nibbling and tippling. Then he debuted a modern Mediterranean venue in a gracious old church. The third to make its appearance was a streamlined steakhouse with a creative streak. And did I mention that each one is a smashing success? Walk into little UB Preserv, the name a quirky homage to Shepherd’s sadly defunct Underbelly, and you’ll be carried along on waves of laughter and chatter as youthful bons vivants quaff Braggarts (mezcal, orange, amaro, bubbles) and scrape up the last grains of spectacular crispy rice covered in heaps of cilantro, jalapeño, and cucumber with a serrano vinaigrette. (UB’s chef de cuisine, Nick Wong, obviously learned a thing or two working in New York at Momofuku Ssäm Bar.) Less than a block down the street is Shepherd’s second love child of the year, One Fifth Mediterranean. Here, the kitchen plies customers with kibbeh nayeh, the tartare of the Middle East, and mutabal, a lusty roasted eggplant dip swirled with tahini and brightened with parsley. Rounding out the trio is Georgia James, a fittingly personal restaurant named for the hospitable chef’s mom and dad. Shepherd is fond of saying, “If you came to my house for a steak, I’d cook it on a cast-iron skillet,” and that is exactly what he does here. Under the direction of chef de cuisine Greg Peters, the beef emerges appropriately lush, with a seductive smoky char. But it’s the unexpected starters and sides—like uni panna cotta with a Fresno-chile gastrique—that will turn your head. Now that he’s completed his banner year, Shepherd could be forgiven for resting on his laurels. But come July 31, One Fifth Mediterranean is slated to be shuttered to make way for the fourth of the five concepts that he’s promised to open in that space over five years. Will he actually close it? I wonder. When you’ve just created one of the best restaurants of your career, it would be crazy to mess with success.
Obsession is not a bad thing at year-old Mexican restaurant Suerte. Compulsively experimenting with humble corn masa is what keeps owner Sam Hellman-Mass and executive chef Fermín Núñez excited. With local heirloom kernels as their starting point, they fashion not just cushy tortillas and pillowy tamales but also bite-size molotes (a little like hush puppies) and other edibles not often seen this side of the border. What goes with these tidbits? Cabrito ribs, for one thing, rubbed with epazote and mint and bolstered by a small herd of condiments like creamy queso fresco and piquant salsa hidalguense. Royal red prawns and avocado for another, aswim in a tart cascabel chile broth. Suerte’s light, bright dining room, with its pink and gray fabric, hardly looks like the kind of Mexican restaurant you’d normally find in Texas. But I suspect that’s the point.
3. Nancy’s Hustle
With uncanny intuition, Nancy’s Hustle delivers just what today’s urban diners want in a restaurant. It’s easygoing (the narrow space offers little beyond concrete floors, plain blond-wood tables, and the occasional potted plant). It’s agreeable (the fun starts with a creative cocktail menu and trendy, minimally processed natural wines). It’s also a little eccentric (what’s with the reel-to-reel tape machine up front?). But most importantly, thanks to executive chef Jason Vaughan, it knows what customers want to eat. That understanding takes the form of openers like a fabulous corn-porridge sourdough bread, the moist loaf begging to be spread with cultured chèvre butter. More substantially, it translates into lamb tartare with Castelvetrano olives and Marcona almonds, sided by crusty, pita-like flatbread. No wonder the restaurant has been getting national attention from the likes of Bon Appétit, Esquire, andThrillist.
We all have dreams: travel the world, meet our soul mate, achieve world peace. Chef David Uygur dreams of being up to his elbows in a vat of ground meat. He attained this goal last year with the opening of Macellaio, a Mediterranean restaurant with a serious side gig doing charcuterie. Located in Dallas’s Oak Cliff neighborhood, it’s the younger sibling of tiny Lucia, an Italian venue also owned by Uygur and his wife (and Italian wine expert), Jennifer. Pronounced “Ma-che-lie-oh” and meaning “butcher,” the new spot puts cured meats front and center: slices of deep-red coppa, for instance, punched up with spicy green peppercorns. But there’s lots more to try, like Uygur’s novel take on the southern French dish aligot. Watch as he raises a pan of melted Gruyère and pours cascades of molten cheese over teeny pickled creamer peas. Tell him it makes you think of queso, and he’ll just smile.
Italian is spoken with a modern accent at Intero. No statues of Roman fauns or candles in Chianti bottles here. Instead, you’re ushered into simple white rooms with angular wooden chairs and mysterious, roiling abstract art. In this setting, talented chef and co-owner Ian Thurwachter has reimagined risotto with French and German touches; the mellow rice is swirled with Brie and bolstered with dry-aged beef sausage and a bit of cabbage. His quail, pink of flesh and deeply scored by the grill, comes with fat, sweet squares of butternut squash in a rich mostarda. At the end of the meal, a wee cup of deep, dark sipping chocolate is all the dessert you need. Keeping it in the family, chocolatier Krystal Craig is Thurwachter’s wife.
The global menu at Poitín checks off so many countries you wonder if the next stop is the moon. At this contemporary space, with its dark woods and spacious taupe booths, a meal might start with thin-sliced Peruvian ceviche marinated in a killer blend of lime juice, garlic, and chiles. Executive chef Dominick Lee might then send you to the Mediterranean to have crostini loaded with oyster mushrooms, creamy ricotta, and fat curls of Parmesan. Argentina gets its due with rosy-pink flank steak accessorized with an intense parsley-oregano chimichurri. The proper nightcap? A shot of the namesake poitín (“put-cheen”), a traditional Irish tipple. Owner Ian Tucker is from the Emerald Isle. It figures.
7. Petra and the Beast
By the time I had inhaled a cinnamon-jazzed mojito and worked my way through a throng of dishes on Petra’s Saturday night tasting menu, I had bonded with the strangers at our shared table. I suspect that happens a lot with solo diners here. The humble East Dallas restaurant has become a beacon for aficionados of foraging, fermenting, and whole-animal cookery. Its genial host is chef-owner Misti Norris, formerly of Small Brewpub, who offers a counter-order regular menu and those special Saturday dinners ($125, by reservation). What stood out? Excellent charcuterie, for one, especially that smashing spreadable sausage ’nduja on a celery-seed cracker. Along the way we also nibbled on crispy bits of smoke-dried beef tongue atop a rice “sauce” garnished with popped sorghum. And we finished with variations on the tangerine: marshmallow fluff, custard, and fresh fruit. Petra is casual, idiosyncratic (the decor includes bundles of dried herbs and baskets of bleached bones), and completely original.
Your seat is a perch at the thirteen-place concrete counter in a modest former storefront in Lindale Park. There, chef Jonny Rhodes and his wife, Chana (the sommelier and general manager), are giving soul food a sophisticated spin. Settle in and wait for round one of your five-course tasting menu to appear. After a few minutes, Jonny steps out to talk about what you’re about to eat and its place in African American foodways. His words are a revelation. So what’s behind his watermelon “Kool-Aid” soup with startlingly salty-sweet pickled blueberries and mint? “There is a pervasive stereotype,” he says, “about black people liking watermelon and Kool-Aid. We wanted to attack that story head-on and show our love” for those ingredients by turning them into something special. And so it goes, through things like local fish with a delicious preserved-ramp ranch dressing, aged pastrami with sorghum-stewed beets, and magnolia-blossom ice cream. Some of Rhodes’s spiels are literal, others are lyrical. All are insightful. Menus $79 and $125; reservations required.
With its small, casual dining room and travel poster–type art, Clementine looks like a comfy place where you’d meet friends after yoga or a movie. And it’s perfect for that. But that is by no means the whole story. In the hands of executive chef and co-owner John Russ, the sensibility is Mediterranean and Southern and the technique is expert. Moist duck-leg confit arrives in a puddle of Emmentaler cheese and a meaty sauce Robert. A strong Italian inclination shows up in the pasta choices, including casarecce, short twirls of noodle cozied up to strips of scandalously fatty (and delicious) braised veal. Alongside are dark, pleasingly bitter greens, which you can use to assuage your conscience. You’ll want to do that because you’re going to challenge it again with dessert, one fine example being co-owner (and pastry chef) Elise Russ’s passion fruit crème brûlée, silky and sharp at the same time, like key lime pie with a French twist.
“Theatrical” hardly does the decor justice. You walk through the bar and into acres of jungle-print wallpaper. Then you notice—what are those? Ruffled petticoats on the ceiling? Gigantic paper flowers? The dining room isn’t quite as much fun, although it’s equally attractive. But once executive chef Nico Sanchez’s modern Mexican dishes start coming, you forget everything to concentrate on appetizers like charred octopus, a sinuous butter-tender tentacle under a piquant achiote-ginger-orange sauce. Seafood is obviously a strength; witness all-but-quivering diver scallops on a mild smoked-potato puree cozied up to a teeny cross section of baked butternut squash. Sybaritic desserts include a floozy of a piloncillo chocolate cake that you won’t soon forget.