Over the course of 2018, more than twenty correspondents helped Texas Monthly cover the state’s expansive restaurant scene by eating hundreds of meals at restaurants across the state. They dined at the newest joints and revisited mainstays. They dined at white-tablecloth establishments and squeezed into vinyl booths at casual lunch spots. You can find the results of their culinary labors at our Dining Guide online and in each new issue. While food critic Patricia Sharpe finalizes her choices for the Top 10 New Restaurants of 2018, to be revealed in our March issue, we present some of the favorite dishes our Dining Guide contributors enjoyed this year. Some menus change with the season, of course, so not all of these picks are available year-round. (Looking for barbecue? That’s its own category here at TM. Look for Daniel Vaughn’s “Best Bites” next week.)
The Cubano Medianoche at Six Car Pub and Brewery
At this exciting brewery and eatery, which opened this year on the site of the long-gone Amarillo Grand Opera House, it’s not just a ham ’n cheese. The Cubano Medianoche has ham, roast pork, Swiss, and pickle marmalade topped with perfectly toasted pimento-cheese croquettes, all of which combined yield magic between a bun. 625 S. Polk.
The Shanghai Jumbo Seafood Soup Dumpling at Lin Asian Bar
This dumpling is a monster—at least the size of three or four normal ones. It comes in a form-fitting bowl that’s set in a bamboo box, and you treat the dumpling like it was a vessel itself. First you make a hole in the wrapper with your spoon and slurp up steaming mouthfuls of sweet, umami-rich broth. Then you finish by extracting the little morsels of shrimp, scallop, fish, and lobster. 1203 W. Sixth.
Chicken Fried Steak at Joann’s Fine Foods
Another staple from McGuire Moorman Hospitality, the new restaurant next to the revamped Austin Motel takes the average neighborhood diner to the next level. The chicken-fried steak plate is an indulgent treat—just be prepared to curl up for a nap afterward. I also dream about the vegan banana bread, which is something I never in my life thought I would say. Their red corn pancakes are fluffy and delicious. 1224 S. Congress Ave.
Sourdough Focaccia at Intero
This is not your usual pleasingly plump focaccia. No, this version transforms the puffy Italian bread into long, slender fingers, toasted brown, with bits of sweet onion on top. You pick one up and swipe it through a dip of milky, house-made ricotta with a drizzle of olive oil and a few rosemary leaves on top. There’s no better way to spoil your appetite. 2612 E. Cesar Chavez.
Suadero Tacos at Suerte
This new mecca of masa seems to do no wrong with its inventive, shareable menu. These red-corn tortilla gems are topped with confit brisket enveloped in the toasty, earthy flavor of the appropriately named black magic oil and a bright dollop of avocado salsa cruda. 1800 E. Sixth.
New Mexican Pumpkin Burger at the Funky Art Cafe
Far from the sweet, cinnamon taste of a pumpkin-spiced latte, this hearty patty is chock-full of wild rice, corn, cilantro, and jack cheese, with a little jalapeño sprinkled in for a spicy kick. The result is a delectable blend of Southwestern flavors. 202 W. Commerce.
Seared Snapper with Shrimp Enchiladas at Madden’s Casual Gourmet
An eye-catching tower of shrimp enchiladas resting on tomato risotto and crowned with seared snapper, this dish resulted in that elusive perfect bite for me this year. The added flavors of the green chile sauce, avocado dressing, and cotija cheese are distinct yet blend beautifully. 202 S. Bryan Ave.
Prosciutto and Grape Pizza at Barrel & Pie
This is a crave-worthy pizza full of unexpected flavor pairings. The fusion of salty prosciutto, pungent olive oil, and savory rosemary is countered with an explosion of sweet red grape—magnifico! 1512 Fifth Ave., Suite 101.
Chef Special BBQ Fish With Bone at Dao Authentic Asian Cuisine
This dish (which also has a boneless option) is indeed very special. Like, drive to the coast to order it special. They flash-fry a whole red snapper and then serve it in a red broth with starchy rice cakes and vegetables of the season, all stinging your tongue with the sweet burn of chile peppers. A tangle of cilantro stems and leaves on top adds freshness; a couple of Sternos underneath keep things warm for the duration of this substantial dish. 2033 Airline.
Tsukiji Market Sushi Special at Yutaka Sushi Bistro
Chef Yutaka Yamato once dubbed this the Sushi Tour of Japan. It’s a sampler of ultra-fresh delicacies, like Japanese sardine and beltfish (a skinny critter, delicate and white-fleshed). The selection of specialty fish rotates, depending on what Yutaka fancies flying in from Japan’s famous fish market. Sublime accents—special sauces, grated toppings, subtle cures—raise the experience to heavenly heights. 2633 McKinney Ave.
Carnitas-Style Octopus at Purépécha
This stunning, carnitas-style (think confit) octopus dish wowed us with its buttery-soft texture and marvelous interplay of flavors. Topped with a sweet-and-sour piloncillo sauce, diced Asian pear, and toasted sesame seeds, the gorgeous tentacle was perched atop a silken black-bean puree. The dish, part of our eight-course dinner served in this intimate space in the back of Revolver Taco Lounge, showcases modern Mexican cuisine at its finest. 2701 Main.
Walu Walu at Uchi
From the “hot tastings” side of the menu, this oak-grilled escolar (snake mackerel) dazzles. Perfectly seared for a caramelized crust, the buttery filet is topped with citrus marmalade and micro-scallions and perched on a puddle of ponzu. It’s almost too pretty to eat, but dive in with a spoon—it’s the only way to corral every element into one mesmerizing bite. 2817 Maple Ave.
Iberico Secreto at Sachet
When this prized Iberian pork cooks, the fat melts away, bathing the meat in juiciness. It’s served with a lusty pimiento sauce and an herb-kissed salsa verde. Rich and rosy, this steak-like cut rivals the best beefsteaks in town. 4270 Oaklawn.
Halibut with Mole Blanco at Flora Street Cafe
Halibut seems ill-suited for traditional mole sauces, so Stephan Pyles finesses a fitting “mole blanco”—enriched with white chocolate—to complement the mild and sweet fish. Flanked by tender fava beans and topped with delicate shoestring potatoes and fresh chives, this dish strikes a harmonious chord. 2330 Flora.
Thai Roasted Chicken at Tillie’s
This year, I was thrilled to discover Tillie’s in Dripping Springs, at the Camp Lucy resort. The place is absolutely beautiful, and the food from chef Brandon Martin is truly inspired. While you can find an expertly grilled prime ribeye, I find myself regularly craving the Thai Roasted Chicken with sticky jasmine rice and curry vinaigrette and the sweet-and-spicy fried Brussels sprouts. Their weekend dim sum–style brunches are not to be missed, nor their weekday Tillie’s cheeseburger with green-chile pimiento and smoked onion jam for lunch. 3509 Creek Rd.
Nachos at Lick It Up
This trailer, behind the Monarch bar downtown, offers an unforgettable vegan Mexican street food experience. The nachos are sublime—they are covered in veggies and a cashew sauce that rivals most cheeses. Other triumphs are the torta filled with seitan and the tightly rolled flautas with soy chorizo and potatoes. 204 E. Rio Grande Ave.
Chilaquiles at The Clock
Everyone who comes here should order a sumptuous plate of chilaquiles, crispy tostadas layered with red chile sauce and cheese. The restaurant, which resembles a diner in a Quentin Tarantino movie, is fast and friendly, and they’ll add freshly grilled jalapeños to any order. 8409 Dyer.
The Seafood Pancake at Kalbi House
This perfectly fried potato pancake, with large chunks of squid and shrimp, accompanies many of the dishes at this unassuming Korean restaurant in northeast El Paso. 5718 Dyer.
Fish and Chips at Tokyo Cafe
Chef Kevin Martinez puts his own brand of Japanese twists on plates coming out of his kitchen. His ramen creations are hard to beat, but for comfort with crunch, we can’t get past the featherlight tempura crust of the Pacific cod planks. Served with yuzu-teased tartar sauce and black malt vinegar, they’re piled atop a stack of ridiculously addictive hand-cut fries. 5121 Pershing Ave.
House-Made Ricotta at Piattello Italian Kitchen
The utter indulgence of this starter plate cannot be overstated—never before has ricotta been so lush. Made in-house, drizzled with fine olive oil, and sprinkled with a little sea salt and plenty of fresh thyme leaves, the giant crescent is accompanied by slices of grilled fresh sourdough, made on-site daily. 5924 Convair Dr.
Shrimp and Grits at Taste Community Restaurant
The menus change quarterly, and there was much to love in the first four seasons for this pay-what-you-can philanthropic restaurant. Tops was the wide bowl of creamy cheese grits, crowned with pan-grilled shrimp in an herbaceous mix of sautéed peppers and onions. 12oo S. Main.
Scallops at Clay Pigeon
Plump and silken scallops were seared just until crisp at the very edges, creating a contrast fine scallops deserve but don’t always get. Chef Bria Downey served these over a hash riddled with smoky bacon, sweetened with mixed peppers, laced with summer corn puree, and flecked with cool cilantro snips. 2731 White Settlement Rd.
Shrimp Salad at Shrimp ’N Stuff
Although this no-frills local fave specializes in things fried, the shrimp salad comes packed with boiled versions of the plump crustaceans, plus healthy raw veggies and a hard-boiled egg. 3901 Avenue O.
A Mug of Oysters at Sonny’s Place
This is a must anytime we’re in Galveston: a dozen raw oysters served in a chilled beer mug and topped with tangy cocktail sauce and horseradish. This landmark tavern has been serving diners since 1944. 1206 Nineteenth.
Spaghetti at Coltivare Pizza & Garden
Served piping hot, this dish creates a perfect balance of al dente pasta, piquant seasoning, and mellow parmesan. Seems simple; it’s not. 3320 White Oak Drive.
Chicken Empanadas at Oporto Fooding House & Wine
This dish plays on Portuguese history, a melding of tastes from its colonies in South America to Goa, India. A meltingly tender, light pastry wraps around curried chicken with herb aioli for extra kick. 125 W. Gray Ave.
Gulf Red Snapper at Fratelli’s
Since veteran chef Mark Cox took the reins in the kitchen, this little West Houston haunt has been packed. The meaty, moist snapper is roasted to perfection and rests over heavenly asparagus risotto. 1330 Wirt Rd.
Kale Salad at Flower Child
Not just any kale salad, this generous bowl is laced with finely shredded kale (so much easier to chew!) and flaunts fine textures and flavors with chopped smoked almonds, juicy grapefruit sections, organic apples, grated tangy white cheddar, and just the right amount of tongue-tingling apple cider vinaigrette. Have that and the extraordinary tomato toast with goat cheese and cashew pesto, and you’ll completely forget about meat. 1101 Uptown Park Blvd., Suite C-6.
Mary’s House-Smoked Salmon at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse
There are smoked salmon dishes, and then there’s Mary’s, a new dish on the menu at this iconic steakhouse. The gingerly smoked fish seasoned with cracked black pepper is thickly sliced and served over a caper cream sauce garnished with pickled shaved red onions and fennel. A stack of grilled crostini comes along for the sweet ride. 1200 McKinney St.
Ribeye Steak at Leona General Store Steakhouse
These thick, juicy, hand-cut ribeyes are ordered by the ounce and served with twice-baked mashed potatoes, homemade rolls, and an abundance of flavor. Housed in a 1920s general store next door to a soda fountain, the destination lends to the appeal. 176 N. Leona Blvd.
Brie En Croute at King Street Pub
Bacon shallot jam is a sweet-salty partner for perfectly baked creamy Brie in this mammoth appetizer. The menu rotates seasonally, but if you find this meal of an appetizer available, don’t hesitate—just don’t plan on an entrée. 8004 Indiana Ave.
Lobster Ravioli in Garlic Cream at Stella’s
House-made and generously stuffed, these ravioli are lemony, rich with ricotta and parmesan, and cooked perfectly. Round out the experience with garlic-roasted shrimp and spinach, and soak up the sauce with focaccia, also made in-house. 4646 50th.
Passion Fruit Brûlée at Clementine
As if crème brûlée’s voluptuous custard and crackly burnt-sugar topping weren’t enough, at Clementine the chefs add a touch of passion fruit to this classic dessert—miraculously, it changes the entire character from sumptuous to sassy. If you like lemon curd or key lime pie, you’ll know what we mean. 2195 NW Military Hwy.
The Not Pizza at Playland
Pizza joint Playland is named for Playland Park, a beloved amusement park in San Antonio from 1943 to 1980. Appropriately, the pizzas are playful, including our favorite, the Not Pizza. It comes slathered with an apricot glaze and tart Bee Tree skyr (similar to yogurt) on a splendid sourdough crust topped with Italian ham and basil. 400 E. Houston.
White Corn Grits at Bakery Lorraine
It’s torture standing in line to order at this charming bakery and coffee shop (which now has four locations in San Antonio, including our favorite in the Pearl, and one in Austin). You are forced to gaze upon row after row of pastries and sweets. But what you’re waiting for is a bowl of warm white corn grits punched up with a sunny-side-up egg and caponata—here that translates to tiny diced sweet-pickled squash(es). You can add sausage, but we like bacon. There’s no better wake-up call. 306 Pearl Parkway, No. 110.
Queso at Lolita’s
The queso at Lolita’s is neither Rotel dip nor what you find at Torchy’s nor any variation of creamy cheese spiked with chiles. It is chiles with queso, a bowl of warm red salsa with melty Oaxacan-style cheese, which you may not even see from the surface. The whole thing’s a mess, the cheese stringing every which way and the thin salsa splattering all white shirts in the vicinity. As it should be. Bring me another.