Idecided to move across the country when I was nineteen years old. It was a strategic separation from everything I knew and found familiar—and for the sake of politeness, I’ll describe it as a mutually beneficial separation. I had recently dropped out of college, and I was frightened to death that I’d be stuck in Brownsville forever, that I’d blown any chance to have the sort of life I wanted but was afraid to hope for. So I decided to move to the polar opposite of my hometown: Seattle.
I’ve read a lot of backgrounders on chefs over the years. The majority of these documents are festooned with blue-ribbon credentials and littered with the names of swanky dining establishments. Well-known Houston chef John Sheely’s, by contrast, candidly states that he started out as a ski bum in his twenties working for restaurants to support a serious slope habit. I like that. It seems all-American. Horatio Alger–esque.
This newcomer tackles two of Spain’s most iconic foods, paella and tapas. Of the starters, the refreshingly authentic gazpacho had a faintly smoky taste, while the bright-red piquillos rellenos (stuffed with duck carnitas) adroitly blended the two very different flavors. While we enjoyed both the traditional paella (stocked with seafood) and the fideua (made with short, skinny noodles instead of rice), both were short on the bright medicinal tang of saffron, a spice we happen to like.
This popular place fits Houston’s most eclectic area, drawing a neighborhood crowd for excellent, slightly offbeat Tex-Mex, burgers, vegan, and vegetarian fare. There’s a funky vibe, for sure, but the interior is stylish, and the patio and coffee bar are inviting. Going off the beaten path, we gambled on chicken-fried eggplant sporting a nicely peppered (if a tad salty) cornmeal crust.
After over a decade of running Mockingbird Bistro, John Sheely has opened this Galleria-area spot, where he serves food inspired by his Italian family’s cooking. Our two salads were brilliant: one combined roasted beets with fennel, pine nuts, and herbed ricotta; the other, Little Gem lettuce with shaved radish and squash and ethereal fried anchovies. Alas, things got a bit shaky with some entrées.
We were taken aback by the showy Vegas-style decor and disco beats at this multilevel venue, but we felt more at home when a basket of Slow Dough bakery’s pretzel bread arrived. Beyond that were hits and misses. Coconut-crusted shrimp was oily, but its spicy-tart pineapple pico was dynamite. Gorgeous Frenched lamb chops impressed with a zippy mint chimichurri. Sadly, beautiful medallions of seared ahi were too heavily crusted in salt and pepper. (12/13)
Prepare to be wowed by the food being served by chef-owner Jose Hernandez (formerly of Triniti) at this spiffy new strip-center place far west of Houston. Two salads—one with figs, prosciutto, and baby greens, the other with roasted beets, arugula, and Gorgonzola—had us quoting Vonnegut: “If this isn’t nice, what is?” Our elegant repast continued with sumptuous caramelized scallops atop a swath of celery purée and classic beef bourguignonne with pancetta, braised pearl onions, and sautéed enoki mushrooms.
First comes a successful food truck, then the urge to settle down. Julia Sharaby and David Grossman’s new downtown space offers amenities missing in parking-lot dining: temperature-controlled seating, a bar, even an umbrella-covered patio. And best of all, imaginative tacos like the crispy-shell lamb keema with cucumber-and-tomato salsa, the vindaloo beef short rib with raita, and the chicken-fried oyster topped with celery root slaw and doused with Frank’s RedHot. (12/13)
Clean lines, colorful accents, and even a walk-up window for to-go slices make Coppa a welcome addition to the hood (meaning Southampton, Southgate, and West U). Many of our faves from the original Washington Ave Coppa have been reproduced here, like the fabulous spaghetti carbonara, lively with black pepper, salumi, and a little pitcher of Parmesan cream. We also love the fusilli with tender meatballs and spicy marinara. (12/13)
Butcher block tables and an iron-beamed ceiling make for a welcoming interior at this spacious new spot. The menu is fabulously creative, with treats like a Moroccan lamb burger with lemony yogurt sauce, crisp cucumber, and eggplant and mussels steamed in golden ale and served with toasted bread (all bread is made in-house). Regardless of your order, a side of fries is a must. (12/13)