Senior editor Patricia Sharpe on how she picked this year’s best new restaurants.
texasmonthly.com: In the introduction to “Where to Eat Now 2005,” you mention that this year wasn’t, “in the words of the song, a very good year.” Did you feel you were pressed to find ten superior restaurants? Why or why not?
Patricia Sharpe: I expect each year to be better than the year before, but the restaurant scene is like the stock market—there are bull years and bear years. It doesn’t necessarily go up in a straight line, although over the long haul, the quality does improve. That’s mainly because as the big cities of Texas grow and become more competitive, they can attract more culinary talent. When I think of some restaurants in Texas that we considered cutting-edge fifteen years ago, I have to laugh, because they wouldn’t even begin make the top ten now.
texasmonthly.com: How do you begin the whole process of coming up with your list of ten?
PS: All year long I keep track of new restaurants. They call me or send press releases, or readers write and tell us about their favorite new places. I read the daily newspapers’ restaurant reviews. I look at ads. There are lots of ways to find out what’s new. It would be hard to do a story like this totally from scratch, but if you have been covering the restaurant scene for a long time, people seek you out.
texasmonthly.com: You list three restaurants from Houston and three restaurants from Dallas. Generally speaking, which do you think has better restaurants, Houston or Dallas?
PS: I honestly could not say. I think the level of talent among the chefs in each city is almost exactly equal. That said, I do feel there are considerably fewer high-caliber restaurants in Austin, San Antonio, and Fort Worth than in Dallas and Houston. Sorry, but that’s the way it is.
texasmonthly.com: Do you follow any kind of geographical structure? Or do you simply go by the best restaurants and worry about what city they are located in later?
PS: I let the quality determine the story. If I had found four exceptional restaurants in Fort Worth or San Antonio—or Port Aransas, for that matter—that is what I would have written about. But the chances of that happening are pretty slim. For one thing, exceptional chefs command exceptional salaries. For another, the quality of ingredients that they demand comes at a premium. The design of restaurants of this level tends to be expensive. All of this means that a restaurant has to have a large potential audience. That is why the best restaurants and top chefs tend to be in the big cities—Dallas and Houston.
texasmonthly.com: Because you are writing about the same thing over and over—food—how do you keep your writing fresh?
PS: Lucky for me, there is a lot of exciting food out there, and that keeps me going. When the food is fantastic, the words flow. The reviews write themselves. And fantastic food doesn’t have to be complex or exotic. When I have a perfect bowl of steaming frijoles a la charra and a homemade corn tortilla that has been heated on a comal so it is all warm and lightly charred around the edges, I am the happiest person in the world.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most difficult aspect of working on this feature story?
PS: The hardest part is finding and then driving to the restaurants! It seems like I am always going somewhere new in a huge city, so I have to look the address up on a map, then write the directions down step by step (because I am map-challenged), then negotiate the traffic and all the detours that might be in place. Sometimes I have had to call the restaurant and get them to talk me in. If I could have one thing to help with this job—other than four stomachs, like a cow—it would be a car and driver.
texasmonthly.com: Did you come across any surprises during your research?
PS: I am continually amazed and appreciative that anybody wants to work hard enough to open a new restaurant. Being a chef is one of the most all-consuming jobs in the country, and yet new restaurants open every single day.
texasmonthly.com: What was the best thing you ate during your research?
PS: The long-simmered veal with pappardelle at 17, in Houston. It’s the definition of a homey dish—after all, it’s basically a pot roast—but the flavors were so rich and deep that it was sublime.