There will be steaks—that’s a given. And Mexican food. And Gulf seafood. But our annual roundup of the ten best new restaurants in Texas contains surprises too, including a place with a Canadian chef, as well as a Japanese-Texan mash-up that almost defies description. I’ve been putting together this list since 2002, and I can’t remember a year that included two such distinct outliers.
For this, the seventeenth edition, 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, 2016, and December 1, 2017 (with a small grace period allowed just in case something has slipped through the cracks). Reopened restaurants that keep their original names, like the gloriously remodeled French Room, in Dallas, are unfortunately not eligible (but it’s so nice to have it back where it belongs). All right. Enough chitchat! Let’s eat!
You must have the flying ants. Yes, really. Don’t freak. The crispy critters, judiciously folded into a bright, pungent mole de chicatana, are actually quite mild. But more to the point, edible insects are a signature of chef Hugo Ortega’s Xochi, the most fascinating restaurant to have opened in Texas in 2017. The menu takes its inspiration from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, widely regarded for its culinary sophistication. Here you can feast on traditional dishes like cabrito, a tidy rectangle of crispy goat meat in a svelte, deep-brown chilhuacle pepper mole. Or you can go modern with scallop-and-cucumber crudo, a vision in pink and green. You can also go a little crazy with a fabulous faux cacao pod (above). Set in a smart, new Houston hotel and brightened with whimsical folk art, Xochi is yet another milestone in the career of 53-year-old Ortega. Last year, when the James Beard Foundation named him Best Chef in the Southwest, his jubilant fans had only one question: Why did it take so long?
Opened January 27, 2017.
L Mon–Fri. D 7 days. B Sat & Sun.
2. Kemuri Tatsu-Ya
What’ll it be? Smoked brisket on ramen? Sticky rice, chorizo, and beef tongue tamales? Tokyo-style grilled corn with yuzu pepper aioli? From the day Kemuri Tatsu-Ya opened, thrill-seeking diners and national food writers have been beating a path to its funky front door. The East Austin hot spot, which is the brainstorm of chef-owners Tatsu Aikawa, age 36, and Takuya “Tako” Matsumoto, age 39, combines two of their favorite institutions: the Texas barbecue joint and the Japanese izakaya (basically a neighborhood brewpub that sells sake and snacks). That “kemuri” is Japanese for “smoke” makes it just perfect.
Opened January 5, 2017.
2713 E. 2nd
Think small. That’s the motto at Sachet, where superlative snacks set a casual tone. The Mediterranean-style menu of 48-year-old chef-owner Stephen Rogers produces such delights as field peas with grilled scallions, punched up with a hazelnut-spice mix, and grilled baby carrots set off by pumpkin seeds and a spunky parsley-and-cilantro toss. But when serious hunger strikes, the kitchen is ready with lamb chops cooked in the wood-burning oven and crispy pork with porcini mushrooms on bouncy farrotto. With its open wood shelving and aqua-and-white floor tiles in the bar area, Sachet would fit right in at a seaside resort.
Opened September 20, 2017.
4270 Oak Lawn Ave
L Tue–Sat. D Tue–Sun.
4. Killen’s STQ
“STQ” stands for “steak and barbecue,” but 51-year-old Ronnie Killen’s Le Cordon Bleu training is the key to understanding the breadth of this small white-tablecloth space tricked out with weathered lumber and walls of wine. Ribeyes come flawlessly grilled, their tenderness a tribute to their wagyu heritage. A fabulous crab cake, adrift in lemon butter, flakes into alabaster pearls of pure crabmeat. When your server lifts the glass dome over your chocolate cake, which sits on a slab of oak and is served with maraschino and port-simmered cherries, clouds of fragrant wood smoke waft into the room. P. T. Barnum would be impressed.
Opened December 5, 2016.
2231 S. Voss Rd
L Tue–Fri. D Mon–Sat.
Quick! Which Texas city is home to a gleaming, golden-hued restaurant named Bullion? It’s Dallas, of course. Every design detail is perfect, from the deep-blue velvet banquettes to the Makassar ebony tables. And what does one eat in such a place? The refined contemporary French cuisine of 51-year-old chef Bruno Davaillon. He’s stupendous with seafood offerings, like ethereal fish-mousse dumplings and silken seared scallops in an Ibérico ham broth. But because the mood is surprisingly low-key and the music hypnotic, the room feels less like a gourmet palace than a cozy supper club.
Opened November 17, 2017.
400 S. Record
L Mon–Fri. D Mon–Sat.
6. Theodore Rex
After running the super-serious, critically acclaimed Oxheart for exactly five years, chef Justin Yu was ready to lighten up. So he turned it into Theodore Rex, an eclectic spot named for (1) his young nephew and (2) the dinosaur. Banquettes in bright quilted fabric soften the little old commercial building. The accessible, changing menu may include a velvety breast of guinea hen in a creamy, brothy sauce and feathery-edged pavé potatoes (a.k.a. scalloped potatoes from heaven). A starter of tomato toast—fine-grained bread crowned with petite tomato halves and garlicky tomato fondant—has become a must-have. The 33-year-old chef’s food is as innovative as ever, and a lot more approachable.
Opened October 6, 2017.
7. Pitchfork Pretty
True, the name Pitchfork Pretty is at odds with the restaurant’s polished modern architecture, where dark wooden beams span an airy, angular space and white paper lanterns seem to float overhead. But nobody is thinking about the name once they’ve started eating the highly original and delicious food of 37-year-old chef Max Snyder. He updates fried chicken by using habanero brine on plump pieces and deep-frying them in fluffy chickpea-flour batter. He grills pears for dessert (above). And his teensy quail egg shooter, perched on a bed of frizzy fried leeks, might just be the year’s best single bite.
Opened June 14, 2017.
2708 E. Cesar Chavez
B Mon–Fri. D Tue–Sat. B Sun.
The number of Texas chefs from Winnipeg, Canada, can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand, and Ryan Lachaine is one of them. At Riel, he offers updated versions of the homey borscht and pierogi cooked by his Ukrainian grandmother and mother. But the casual, contemporary restaurant is not just an homage to the 42-year-old’s childhood. It’s also a tribute to his globe-trotting ways, which include touchdowns in and working visits to New Orleans, San Francisco, Charleston, Hong Kong, and Vietnam. Somehow Lachaine brings everything together in dishes like mangrove snapper submerged in a dusky ham broth with black-eyed peas, as well as a trio of heads-on shrimp sided by a hot sauce kicked up with palm sugar and rice wine vinegar.
Opened January 3, 2017.
Leather-clad menus and stark photographs celebrate the cattle drive, so fine steaks are obligatory. But what you might not expect at Range is a dish like wagyu shabu-shabu, thin-sliced beef that you cook yourself in a bubbling soy broth and then roll up in napa cabbage leaves. Likewise, you might be surprised to see a superb classic from the nineties, miso-marinated baked black cod. At some point, the restaurant’s hallmark blueberry muffins with pink-peppercorn butter will appear on your table, and at the end of the meal, everybody gets cotton candy. Forty-one-year-old chef Jason Dady wants you to remember this place.
Opened September 22, 2017.
125 E. Houston
L & D 7 days.
10. Piattello Italian Kitchen
I’m shocked—shocked—that the arancini here have not been designated a controlled substance. You can tell by looking at people’s faces that these oozy fontina-filled risotto balls are addictive. Why, I saw whole families openly indulging, right there in the spacious dining room and on the deck out front. What is the world coming to? All kidding aside, Piattello’s chef and owner, Marcus Paslay, age 35, obviously knows what people like. His menu ranges from jet-black squid-ink bucatini crowned with lightly sautéed Gulf shrimp (for the pasta snobs) to Roman-style pizzas, their crusts toasty from the wood oven (for everybody).
Opened January 14, 2017.
5924 Convair Dr
L & D 7 days. B Sat–Sun.
At Mirador, on the top floor of fashion store Forty Five Ten, you can dine on stylish New American specialties. Town Hearth’s sumptuous steaks and seafood share space with a yellow submarine and 64 chandeliers.
Tasty venue One Fifth Romance Languages will go dark at the end of July in order to arise in September as One Fifth Mediterranean, phase three of a daring five-year plan. Located side by side near Minute Maid Park, two Italian siblings— easygoing Osso & Kristalla and posh Potente—give Astros fans more dining options.