texasmonthly.com: How do you come up with an initial list that you eventually narrow down to the top ten?
Patricia Sharpe: The eating for this story goes on all year. The Texas Monthly restaurant reviewers in the major cities are always on the lookout for me; they’re my—well, not eyes and ears, exactly—I guess you’d say mouths. They know I need places to use for Pat’s Pick, my monthly column that spotlights a new restaurant. And a lot of those eventually end up in Where To Eat Now, of course. I travel at least once a month to Dallas or Houston, sometimes both, less often to San Antonio and Fort Worth. (I’m based in Austin.) And naturally I check the restaurant reviews in the local newspapers. Dotty Griffith in the Dallas Morning News and Alison Cook in the Houston Chronicle are invaluable resources. But I do all my own eating.
texasmonthly.com: How difficult was it to pick this year’s top ten best restaurants in the state?
PS: It’s hard every year. I compare it to grading papers—I used to be an English teacher. You know when a restaurant is an A (so to speak)—the quality is so obvious it jumps out at you. And you know if it’s a D or an F—it’s consistently boring to dismal, no spark at all. The hard ones are the B’s and C’s—those where the quality is very good on some dishes, even spectacular, but only good to average on others. In the end, I ask myself, “Which ones do I want to go back to?” That’s a pretty good way to assess your, excuse the pun, gut feeling.
texasmonthly.com: Why did you decide to include national chains this year?
PS: I couldn’t justify excluding them any more. Readers don’t ask who owns a place. They ask what kind of food a restaurant serves, is it good, and is it in their price range. Texas Monthly would look like it didn’t know what was going on if we ignored these ever-more-numerous newcomers, even if they’re from New Yawk City.
texasmonthly.com: What was the absolute best thing you ate while researching this feature?
PS: Oh, my. I think it was Hibiscus’ sinful marrowbone heaped with foie gras and gremolata (which is a wonderful, zesty topping made from lemon rind, garlic, parsley, and rosemary). Basically the Dallas restaurant’s dish consists of one kind of fat (the marrow) gilded with another kind of fat (the foie gras) and it is spectacular. Really, all you need of something so rich is a couple or three mouthfuls. I’d faint if I ate the whole thing.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most interesting thing you learned while working on this story?
PS: I had some of the simplest and best seafood I’ve ever had while doing this story—I love the Sandbar in San Antonio in particular. It just goes to show that if the fish is impeccably fresh, it takes very little to turn it into something delicious. Mignonette sauce is about as simple as it can be (wine vinegar, chopped shallots, salt and pepper) but it is just what raw oysters need.
texasmonthly.com: You write about food all the time, how do you keep your writing fresh?
PS: I’m always thinking about what I want to say, even when I’m eating the food. If possible, I jot down some phrases right at the table. Those first impressions are always the most vivid.
texasmonthly.com: How long did you work on this assignment? Did you limit yourself to a certain number of meals a day?
PS: I spent most of September and October traveling, on and off, mainly to Dallas and Houston. I tried to spend no more than three days at a time in one city, and just did lunch and dinner. Well, sometimes I would do a couple of lunches or dinners, but not that often. When you’re trying out restaurants that prepare complex recipes, you need to really pay attention. It’s hard to do that if you have a bad case of food fatigue.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most difficult aspect of working on this feature?
PS: Well, it’s not the eating, that’s for sure. I think it’s being constantly on alert. You can never just eat a meal without concentrating on it and analyzing it. That’s what I love about doing this, but it also gets old after a while.
texasmonthly.com: What was the one trend that seemed to pop out at you during your research?
PS: While I didn’t really find a dominant trend among the restaurants I chose, I do think that the default cuisine of new upscale restaurants today is Mediterranean. The menus may range into Mexican and Asian, but fundamentally they are based in Mediterranean cuisines—which, of course, cover an enormous amount of culinary ground.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think you’ll do this again next year?
PS: Hope so. I think it’s still a good service for the readers.