And this was a good year for new casual restaurants. In various levels of informality and in several types of fare, Betelguese Betelguese, Burger Bodega, Cucharita, Davanti, Gatlin’s Fins & Feathers, Lagniappe, Loro, Moon Rabbit, Solecita and Tim Ho Wan provided very worthwhile new options – not-so-ambitious but readily enjoyable – for easy, not expensive, and unpretentious dining. But among the many newcomers, there were a couple of pretty but dull Italians that opened in the Galleria and River Oaks areas that didn’t add much at all to the dining scene regardless of how much spent on opening and leases. The former providing much what you might expect from an Italian-themed concept originating in the Park Cities section of Dallas.
Below are the ten best restaurants to open in Houston in 2022, listed alphabetically. To note, the approximate average prices for each reflect a typical dinner, which might be an appetizer, side or dessert in addition to the entrée – or a suitable number of small plates – a couple of drinks, if appropriate, tax and a 20% tip.
Cucharita – Mexican – $50 – The little sister to Cuchara, just a half-block away, is an extension on the motif of excellent, truly Mexican cooking that is lighter and more vibrant than most, this one only for breakfast and lunch. The menu is short but tempting: several egg dishes, chilaquiles changing weekly, enchiladas filled with shredded chicken breast and topped with a creamy, green poblano sauce, waffles, and breakfast tacos. Portions are quite sensibly sized, as at Cuchara. There is also a pastry counter filled with tempting baked-in-house goodies that change daily plus the requisite coffee drinks and even a list of breakfast cocktails beyond just mimosas, bloody Mary’s, and micheldas. It is a pretty place – the food is pretty, too – with pinks and aquas, much different, much better, than when it housed Cooking Girl (which begat Pepper Twins and the acceleration of Sichuan cooking in Houston). Cucharita seats just about thirty, some is communal seating, helping quickly to make this feel like comfortable and appropriate part of the neighborhood. Montrose
Davanti – Italian – $50 – Building on the success of the counter-service Fresco on the Southwest Freeway, and the considerable publicity from an appearance on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives in 2021, Fresco was essentially replicated as Davanti this summer, in nicer digs. Higher prices, too, but this is still casual Italian done well from the kitchen of Chef Roberto Crescini who hails from outside of Lake Garda and cooked professionally for years in Italy before coming to Houston. The main attractions are freshly crafted pastas made with at least a substantial portion of hard wheat flour for a toothsome texture, and the ability to be shaped. And shapes there are. If one of the tasty listed options don’t interest, in user-friendly American fashion, you can choose a shape from among “Bucatini, Linguine, Fettuccine, Pappardelle, Spaghetti, Conchiglie Rigatoni, Tagliolini, Rigatoni-Large, Fussili, Tagliatelle, Penne Gluten Free,” then top it with one of eight sauces, and even add a choice from a few proteins to that. A ravioli preparation, pasta with the braised lamb sauce or with an all-beef ragù bolognese – this is Texas, after all – and the thick Roman-style pizza al taglio are the highlights from an enticing menu. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Greenway Plaza
Gatlin’s Fins & Feathers – Southern – $65 – As you might expect with the name, this a sibling to the acclaimed Gatlin’s barbecue joint, which is just a couple of miles away. Similarly, this is very friendly and even homey, and family run, providing Southern-rooted comfort fare that goes a little beyond. The “Fins & Feathers” following the surname is quite descriptive, too, though shellfish is another theme here with oysters served grilled, fried and raw to start and crab and shrimp found in things like New Orleans style barbecue shrimp and additionally straight from the fryer, of course. Getting a similar treatment, the fried chicken, cooked to order with a sturdy, straightforward batter, is delicious. Like that, featuring a “1/2 yard bird, the grilled jerk chicken is quick to sell out and has even drawn some statewide attention already. Most everything works her. The broth of the gumbo is really flavorful, which allows you to overlook that a couple of the proteins in it might be a bit overcooked. But there are no issues with another Louisiana staple, the red beans and rice, maybe the most satisfying of the half-dozen-plus sides that come with most of the orders. The menu ranges even further beyond our neighbors to the east to Mexico for a few dishes and then to southeast Asia for a whole fish preparation that’s grilled with sambal. It all makes sense for today’s Bayou City. This is a comfortable stop, including the interior, which is a welcome contrast – much nicer – to the Mexicatessan, which occupied the building for years and the decidedly old-school Barbecue Inn that’s been down the street for even longer. North Side
Hamsa – Middle Eastern – $100 – The most stylish place for the cooking of the Levant in Houston now, this builds on the success and popularity of the owners’ excellent Badolina Bakery next door and the Doris Metropolitan steakhouse nearby. Serving what it describes as “modern Israeli cuisine,” the food will be largely familiar to most Houston diners, but in a more wide-ranging fashion and plated more attractively. A decent array of wines, too. There is hummus a few ways and other dips with freshly baked, puffy pita bread – sharing is must here – falafel, beef tartare, grilled skewers of various sorts, and grander “big plates” of lamb spareribs, grilled Mediterranean sea bass, and a hanger steak with zaatar-scented butter and a chimichurri sauce. A few of the stars have been seared octopus served with a complementary spicy red pepper muhumara, and a couple of eggplant preparations: a very vibrant baba ganoush, and the beautifully presented Baladi Eggplant that featured tahini, pomegranate seeds, pine nuts and pieces of tomato. Unfortunately, the cooking seems to have slipped as the year has progressed, and been more inconsistent recently. The ground meat kabab was disconcertingly served seemingly raw in the center on a December visit, and the grilled chicken thighs decidedly dull during dinner the previous month, both during meals where other dishes drew raves. Staffing issues have been evident, with service more earnest than deft. Rice Village
Lagniappe – Creole – $35 – It’s better time than ever for discriminating diners living in the Heights. This very useful and adept casual south Louisiana-themed spot is more evidence and yet another tempting option right in the neighborhood. Layne Cruz, a Louisiana native, ran Revival Market, its previous tenant, before transforming the concept into something maybe more approachable, certainly more personal and more consistently satisfying. This is casual Creole fare like sandwiches – especially a po boy and one of the best muffulettas in town – red beans and rice, chicken and sausage gumbo, jambalaya that are done more artfully and playfully than typically found. The morning fare is a focus and includes grillades and grits and a coffee bread pudding French toast among the nearly ten options; a multi-part breakfast plate with especially good eggs and a quiche are also served through the afternoon for the late-risers. The admirable po boy features spicy blackened shrimp, medium-sized, with fried oysters tucked into toasted po boy loaf with green tomatoes, pickled onions and a flavorful remoulade sauce. One demerit is that the bread, shipped from Gambino’s in New Orleans, is sometimes not as fresh as hoped for, with sandwiches falling apart a little too readily. Another of sorts, there is just a wine and beer license, so it’s more sober here than the city that provides its inspiration. Opened daily for breakfast and lunch. Heights
Louie’s Italian American – Italian-American – $75 – Opening early in the year as an all-day café, the concept did not resonate as much as had been planned despite positive press. So, in December, building on dishes of pastas made on site and expanding the Italian-American theme, Café Louie became Louie’s Italian-American, with a contemporary, fun interpretation of long one of the country’s most popular cuisines studded with insight from present-day Italy. There are plenty of familiar items, done a little differently. Fried calamari, meatballs in red sauce, shrimp cocktail, and an old school antipasto plate but with gruyere, too, are some of the starters. Then the pastas, which are nicely crafted here, thin and light, when either stuffed or not. The Piemontese spindly-stranded tajarin made yellowy similar as there with a surfeit of egg yolks in the dough. Heartier fare includes the ostensibly necessary Chicken Parm, redfish with the piccata treatment. and sausage and peppers. Still very early on, not everything works like the Garlic Mozzarella Bread. Made with house-made mozzarella atop obviously excellent bread and slathered with an odd, roasted garlic and black garlic butter that is served in a skillet manages to be less than its parts and also awkward to eat. A limited, well-chosen selection of wines and an handful of cocktails that are slated to increase in number help add atmosphere to the quaint setting that manages to be both industrial and homey. And it shares a single-story mixed-use building with a few other complementary businesses including the still somewhat funky wine bar How to Survive on Land and Sea. East End
Navy Blue – Seafood – $150 – The most impressive entry onto the Houston dining scene is this beautiful blue 7,000-foot-plus seafood place, palace, from the folks at Bludorn that opened around Thanksgiving following plenty of anticipation. It immediately became the best restaurant in the eatery-laden Rice Village. The moneyed set quickly followed from Bludorn, and reservations have been very tough since doors opened. Executive Chef Jerrod Zifchak arrived from New York where he was the last one at the Michelin-starred Café Boulud on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, succeeding Aaron Bludorn in that role. Notably for the cuisine, Zifchak also had four years in the kitchen at Le Bernardin, widely regarded as the top seafood restaurant in the country. There are other impressive CV’s on staff here, which quickly shows upon entry and with the first drink, as service is noticeably professional – unusually so for just opening and for the city in general – solicitous, knowledgeable, accommodating and friendly. The menu is actually quite approachable, ranging from oysters and clams (and caviar) to start with crab cakes, a mussel bisque en croute, fresh pasta preparations and fish. There is a swordfish steak served in a green peppercorn sauce, and an entire Dover sole is fileted tableside. With that and the lobster, you’ve got options; almondine, Oscar and Provençal for the former. A French accent is found in other items, too, a good thing, plus there are a couple of nods to our area with a blackened red snapper and a different-tasting take on seafood gumbo. This is a must-visit for seafood lovers, at least those with some means. Dinner only now, but daily. Rice Village
Pacha Nikkei – Japanese-Peruvian – $100 – Ceviche is the word at this bright, airy spot in the Carillon just inside the Beltway that showcases the Nikkei cuisine of Lima that grew out of that Japanese community there, which has drawn worldwide attention in the past couple of decades. The eight or so ceviche compositions are the stars: interesting, intelligently and artfully composed, and delicious. The most popular has been the Clásico, featuring mahi mahi with a mélange of leche de tigre, aji limo, cancha, choclo, red onion, cilantro, sweet potato puree. Another standout is the Ceviche Nikkei, with small cubes of tuna, a Nikkei leche de tigre, bits of cucumber, avocado puree, chorizo-infused oil, and dehydrated seaweed that’s even more than the sum of its numerous parts. Others include ones centered around octopus, salmon and lobster. To note, you’ll need more food than a single order of ceviche, which are not terribly large. And as exquisite as these can be, another one might quickly come to mind, anyway. Contrastingly, and a noticeable contrast with a top sushi spot, like Uchiko below, is that the maki, the familiar nori-wrapped sushi rolls, are somewhat crudely done, with seafood and rice unevenly or not expectedly (or properly) cooked; enjoyable enough, but considerably less impressive than the ceviche. A version of the popular Peruvian lomo saltado with beef tenderloin likely won’t disappoint, however. Grilled, skewered beef hearts, fried pork gyoza and rice colored black by squid ink and served with a medley of shellfish are some of the enticing menu options here. Cocktails and a lot of really nice choices among the wines. Westchase
Uchiko – Japanese – $165 – “Uchiko, child of Uchi,” is likewise a transplant from Austin, if not quite a replication of its namesake there, with its full bar and grander setting. Located along a glittery stretch of Post Oak Boulevard, it is like its parent, a “non‑traditional Japanese concept,” and has an emphasis on sushi, while also “bringing smoke and char” to some of the creations. That sushi is Uchi-level, superb, in a variety of forms. The Toyosu section showcases the ten to twenty items recently flown in from that market in Tokyo, the successor to Tskuiji, and the home of the most prized pieces at sushi counters worldwide. Regardless of the provenance, the preparations here are deeply flavorful, and often creative and fun. Boquerones, rolls with soft shell crab and nuon mam, and post oak-grilled pork belly were just a few of the temptations on a recent visit. The menu is updated daily and posted on its site, highlighting the attention paid to the ingredients here, and taken with the restaurant, overall. To note, you can certainly spend some money for a meal, even without considering the bluefin tuna and caviar selections. The décor is in line with the high bar of the kitchen. It’s clean-lined and beautifully brown that’s accentuated with abstract works from local artists. With the notably adept service, too, this is a terrific addition to the city’s dining scene. Galleria Area
Wild Oats – Texan – $125 – From the Underbelly Hospitality folks, this provides a fun and chef-driven take into Texan fare from our part of the Gulf Coast, with necessary nods to our deeply imbedded Tex-Mex food culture. It features dishes found or inspired from restaurants of yore of various – well, much lower – price points, but done with better ingredients more adroitly, more interestingly, and serving nicely crafted cocktails and smartly chosen wines. Among the highlights from the well-edited menu is the manageably sized chicken fried steak that’s made with American wagyu beef; it’s the best version of that traditional dish in the city. There’s also Gulf snapper – done with hibiscus, beets, orange – fajitas, quesadillas, a King Ranch casserole, game like antelope or quail, and an artfully presented queso starter. The chili service shtick is fun, and quite tasty; dispensed by the shot, cup or bowl. It can be tough not get at least a shot, if not a bowl, of red before your entrée. Though the food and drink are done well, set in new construction adjoined to the commercial farmers market on Airline, the décor, unfortunately, is staid, boring, really, and with plenty of hard surfaces, it’s cacophonous even when many of the seats are empty. Heights
One of the tempting sushi preparations at Uchiko