What kind of food do they serve?” That’s the first thing friends want to know when I tell them about a new restaurant. More often than not, my answer is something like “eclectic” or “fusion cuisine” or “New American,” because chefs love to play fast and loose with labels, and menus tend to be all over the map. This year, though, seven of the places on our annual list of the state’s ten best new restaurants each pay homage to a single country: India (specifically Goa), Italy, Japan, Laos, Mexico, Spain, and Louisiana. Oh, all right, the last one just feels like its own country.
Zooming in on our list further, I’ve noticed a trend that has been growing since the craft cocktail movement began a couple of decades ago: restaurants are becoming more and more like bars—that is, more casual and (sigh) noisier than ever. Happily, there’s at least one exception to that last rule, a lovely place in San Antonio that earned an honorable mention.
Here are the rules for the nineteenth edition of our roundup: To be eligible, a restaurant must have opened between December 1, 2018, and December 1, 2019, and it must be the restaurant’s first Texas location. Revived establishments are normally out of the running, but I’m making an exception for a place in Houston that came roaring back with a new chef and menu after a two-year closure and landed in our number three slot. Finally, we have a grace period. If something flew in under the radar late in the game, I’ll get to it next year. Okay? Okay! Time to eat!
Leaning back against the polished-walnut banquette in Comedor’s soulful courtyard, I idly reached for the last bit of blue-corn quesadilla lavished with Oaxaca cheese and pearly huitlacoche corn fungus, a nibble to enjoy with my tamarind mezcal cocktail. The rays of the setting sun reflected off the soaring glass facade to my left, lingered on the feathery paloverde trees and the barrel cacti, and fell softly on the hundred-year-old brick wall to my right. A waiter arrived to announce, “Your table is ready.” My friends and I walked into a room that seemed to magically expand as our gaze was drawn upward through broad clerestory windows. Around us, two stories of impeccably designed steel and concrete blended light and shadow, heft and weightlessness. We looked at one another in awe as the same question formed in our minds: “Are we in Austin anymore?”
With last spring’s opening of Comedor (“dining room”), the Mexican restaurant scene in Austin has undergone a seismic shift. I don’t mean to criticize—I love the city’s restaurantes and taquerias. But until now nothing in the capital could be seriously compared, for depth, variety, and modernity, to the best in Houston—I’m talking about your restaurants, Hugo Ortega. Nothing could be mentioned in the same breath as celebrated destinations south of the border like Mexico City’s Pujol and Oaxaca’s Criollo, which I visited during three weeks in Mexico last summer. As of 2019, that all changed. Comedor belongs in that elevated league.
An impressive coalition of talent and money was marshaled to bring the restaurant into existence, beginning with a small group of investors who funded the from-scratch construction on one of the costliest pieces of downtown real estate. It continued with the bravura building, which is the work of Seattle-based architect Tom Kundig. It culminated with the collective talent of three Texas chefs. The first is McAllen-born Philip Speer, who made a name for himself as the poet of pastry at Austin Japanese restaurants Uchi and Uchiko. Next is El Paso native Gabe Erales, who worked at Dai Due Taqueria, in Austin, and also did a stint at world-famous Noma, in Copenhagen. Rounding out the trio is Alan Delgado, also from El Paso, who was executive chef at Austin’s elite Counter 3.Five.VII. Their mind meld has produced a dazzling, frequently changing menu that has deep roots in Mexican tradition but also takes space walks into the creative stratosphere.
Now seated in the dining room, our party ordered a wide-ranging spread. Of the lighter ones, our favorite was a dish that has become the new ceviche, aguachile, here made with lightly marinated yellowfin tuna spiked with chile costeño and smoky charred cucumber. Of the substantial ones, we were absolutely smitten with the bone marrow tacos. Scandalously rich, topped with citrusy pecan gremolata and a brilliant sprinkle of brûléed brown sugar, they will change your life. For dessert, we ended with Speer’s floral, ivory-white chamomile mousse sided by sharp, sweet pink guava sorbet and garnished with—don’t panic—two of Oaxaca’s famous salty and spicy chicatana ants.
For nearly two decades, the modern Mexican culinary movement in Texas has been ruled by one person: Hugo Ortega. Is the king’s well-deserved title in danger? No. His three restaurants are as solid as ever. But be advised that the Texas Mexican Food Timeline does have a significant new date: 2019. In other words, there’s Before Comedor (BC) and After Comedor (AC). It’s just that simple.
Opened April 16, 2019
D 7 days. B Sun.
At Squable, opposites don’t just attract. They jump into bed with each other. The European menu is upscale, but the setting is easygoing. The cooking is sophisticated, but the prices are eminently reasonable. The offerings, which have an American influence, are all over the place, but the quality is deliciously on-target. You may think you know succotash, but have you had the seasonal corn stew with green beans and a chicken-based “sauce espagnole”? Do you expect mussels to be served in a winey broth? Here, the shellfish are marinated and piled onto grilled toast along with fat, sassy calico beans. The comfortable brick-walled space—the name is pronounced “Squabble,” by the way—is the domain of co-chefs Mark Clayton and Drew Gimma. Their big-name partners, innovative bar mogul Bobby Heugel and James Beard Award–winning chef Justin Yu, wisely stay out of the way and let the new guys shine.
Opened April 23, 2019
632 W. 19th
3. Davis St. at Hermann Park
As you enter, you might hear the sound of drinks being shaken at the little bar. If it’s Wednesday, there’s a jazz combo in one corner. Your smart black-quartz tabletop will be set with sparkling wine glasses and crisp white napkins. After a two-year hiatus, Davis St. at Hermann Park is back, with a new menu and a palpable sense of excitement. A great deal of credit for the rebirth belongs to Houston chef Mark Holley, who is at the top of his game. His years specializing in seafood in Houston at Brennan’s and Pesce shine through in preparations like Boutte’s Gumbo, which comes brimming with duck confit and miraculously crisp fried oysters. Blackened grouper summons Louisiana chef Paul Prudhomme’s famous redfish; Carolina gold rice and ham hock pot liquor augment the dish. Touches like harissa on a plump Cornish game hen keep the menu as international as Houston itself.
Davis St. at Hermann Park
Opened August 20, 2019
5925 Almeda Rd
D Tue–Sun. B Sun.
You may think you can eat just one of Homewood’s Parker House rolls. Ha! You swish those yeasty little fluff balls in the side dish of golden chicken pan drippings, and . . . Oh, wait! You forgot to save one for the Parmesan Mornay sauce. And suddenly you’re signaling, “Waiter, more rolls!” Chef-owner Matt McCallister, the force behind now-closed FT33, is back in the game with a vengeance. At Homewood, he’s abandoned complex tweezer cuisine in favor of more robust dishes that are, as he puts it, “still playful and creative, just not as showy.” That means oak-smoked Hereford pork loin with house-made hominy. And rosy-fleshed steelhead trout in brown-butter hollandaise. The dining room, too, tries for a casual feel. There’s a bright, pretty counter and large window up front; the decidedly Middle American booths toward the back say, “Come on in.”
Opened April 16, 2019
4002 Oak Lawn Ave
D Tue–Sun. B Sat & Sun.
If you don’t go a little nuts at MAD, you’ve missed the point. In June, this zany carnival of a restaurant exploded onto the Houston scene like a Roman candle. It is chef Luis Roger’s tribute to Spain’s culinary magician Ferran Adrià, the individual often credited with inventing molecular gastronomy. So when you sit down, turn straight to Modern Tapas on the menu and order one of everything. The magic starts with Liquid Olives, spheres of pure olive juice miraculously encased in a skin so thin it bursts at the mere touch of a tooth. The MAD Tomato is not really a hothouse beauty but a trompe l’oeil gelatin shell seductively filled with Parmesan mousse and emerald pesto. Between courses, enjoy the space-themed decor, whirling mirrors, marquee lights, and sinuous art-glass chandeliers. And if you’re feeling conventional, don’t fret. Roger also offers fine paellas and superlative jamón ibérico. But the tapas are where he’s having the time of his life.
Opened June 19, 2019
4444 Westheimer Rd
D Tue–Sat. B Sun.
At 27-seat Salaryman, choosing a ramen broth (all chicken-based) will make you giddy with delight. Is it to be the lovely light shio, the hearty soy-jazzed shoyu, or the sensual paitan swirled with a garlic-and-butter finishing sauce? This Texas version of a Japanese izakaya is a labor of love for Dallas chef-owner Justin Holt, who was the sous chef at cult favorite Lucia, also located in Dallas’s Oak Cliff neighborhood. He and his staff make the noodles, buy only all-natural whole chickens, and insist on super-hot Japanese binchotan charcoal for their grills. And speaking of grills, Salaryman’s yakitori is superb. The rosy-pink chicken livers, to mention just one offering, are so fragile and shimmering they rival foie gras. It’s not until dessert—a soft-serve treat flavored with Mexican vanilla and topped with chocolate—that the kitchen brings it back home.
Opened September 11, 2019
287 N. Bishop Ave
7. Vixen’s Wedding
Ignore the restaurant’s mystifying name—we’ll get to that. First, order fried green tomatoes with mint chutney. Then get serious with the whole roasted fish of the day, stuffed to the gills with a coconut crab curry. Finish your journey with an East-meets-West dessert like rum crème brûlée with mango sorbet. The fare enjoyed in this spacious room, with fabric-covered lights floating overhead, is inspired by the cuisine of Goa, a tropical Indian state that was once a colony of Portugal. The masterminds are two well-known Austin chefs, Todd Duplechan and Jessica Maher, of eight-year-old restaurant Lenoir. Duplechan became fascinated with the cuisine while working in New York with famed chef Floyd Cardoz, whose family is Goan. A vixen’s wedding is an old folk term for rain while the sun is shining. Maher thought the phrase was charming. And it is.
Opened July 10, 2019
Arrive East Austin hotel, 1813 E. 6th
D 7 days.
8. Khao Noodle Shop
Chef Donny Sirisavath’s late mother was a wonderful cook. That’s why he felt so lucky to have her Laotian recipes when he did pop-ups around Dallas several years back. His customers loved the vibrant Southeastern Asian flavors, like pork sausage with lemongrass and shrimp bites wrapped in crispy bean curd. True, a few dishes could be a challenge. “Just try it,” he would gently urge as he described boat noodles in a hearty pork blood and bone marrow broth. “It’s even better if you add a shot of vinegar.” Finally, in December of 2018, Sirisavath opened his own little place, which has a pleasant industrial look. Then, in September, all hell broke loose—in a very good way—when Bon Appétit named Khao the second-best new restaurant in the country. Now that things have calmed down, you should check it out. And don’t miss the boat noodles.
Khao Noodle Shop
Opened December 12, 2018
L Wed–Sun. D Tue–Sat.
Tim Love is nothing if not a Texas chef. At his flagship Lonesome Dove Western Bistro, in Fort Worth, he’s built a reputation on the likes of wagyu ribeyes and smoked venison short ribs. But he’s always had a thing for Italian food. So when a suburban restaurant space became available, he jumped at the chance to try something new. Grab a seat in Gemelle’s small dining room, with its pretty pink-white-and-green color scheme. Walk out to the backyard to see the bocce court and gardens. Back inside, start with an appetizer like the terrific celery root carpaccio. For serious sustenance, turn to super-cheesy, rectangular Detroit-style pizzas (Tim’s wife, Emilie, is from Michigan). Inevitably, some hallmark Love touches show up on the menu, notably the cannellini bean–jalapeño pesto ravioli with rabbit-rattlesnake sausage. Once a Texas chef, always a Texas chef.
Opened May 29, 2019
4400 White Settlement Rd
L Fri–Sun. D Wed–Sun.
“Hey, kids, let’s open a restaurant!” Every semester at the Culinary Institute of America’s San Antonio campus, the graduating students tie on their aprons and step into the kitchen. Most of them are young and starry-eyed; some are midlife career changers looking to shake things up. Their classroom laboratory is now Savor, a compact, Scandinavian-looking restaurant located in the attractive Pearl retail and residential center north of downtown. Savor’s global menus are devised by the CIA’s faculty chefs, and over the past year, customers have been treated to dishes as diverse as pan-seared Gulf red snapper with spicy Thai red curry and tagliatelle tricked out with crispy pancetta and crème fraîche. Given that all the players are amateurs, the quality is impressive. The price—$39 for three courses, $46 for four, plus à la carte options—means a meal here is always a bargain.
Opened January 22, 2019
200 E. Grayson
In a colorful little cinder-block building, Nixta Taqueria’s creative chef, Edgar Rico, is making crazy-good tacos with equally colorful heirloom-corn tortillas. The bubbling Japanese hot pots at DipDipDip Tatsu-Ya would be even more appealing if the stove-tables and chairs weren’t so ridiculously small.
Twenty-five miles north of San Antonio, Kindling Texas Kitchen occupies a homey modernized farmhouse; its menu, with entrées like braised beef on autumn squash risotto, gives country fare a city feel.
Your order—like Thai chicken in green curry, bright with lemongrass and lime zest—is usually ready in minutes at Ka-Tip Thai Street Food’s fresh, simple counter-order spot near the downtown farmers’ market. Pleasant, welcoming Beverley’s, an American bistro with nicely varied fare (think steak tartare, expertly cooked fritto misto, whole branzino), is suiting Dallas diners just fine.
In 2015 chef Chris Shepherd announced that once a year for five years he would christen a new restaurant concept at the same quirky, remodeled historic church. With One Fifth Gulf Coast, it’s four down and one to go—you’d better check out that seafood jambalaya by July 31. Pretty Rosie Cannonball anchors an upscale dining and shopping complex, offering Mediterranean and American fare (like a splendid Little Gem lettuce salad with trout roe and creamy sherry vinaigrette) at both lunch and dinner.
Chef-owner Larry Delgado has hit the sweet spot between upscale and relaxed at Salomé on Main, doing interior Mexican dishes with cross-border appeal, like crispy pork belly in a perky guajillo-tamarind gastrique.
At Evo, short for “Evolution,” chef Arturo Fernández brings upscale Mexican cuisine and proper service to a delightful room with seven well-laid tables. Bonus: It’s quiet enough that you can actually converse while enjoying your fresh crabmeat salad cleverly wrapped in paper-thin avocado slices.
This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Where to Eat Now.” Subscribe today.