Crawfish and Noodles – 2010 – Viet-Cajun – Near the western part of Chinatown on Bellaire Boulevard, this bustling and fun outpost helped to introduce and popularize Viet-Cajun crawfish in the area so much so that it’s drawn national attention to the restaurant and proprietor and chef, Trong Nguyen, along with making the dish one of Houston’s signature culinary offerings, a testament to Houstonians love of the Louisiana-instigated mudbug culture and Vietnamese flavors. Even more, their crabs, wings and more show that casual, communal fare done very well can make the day that much more enjoyable and rewarding.
Underbelly – 2012 – Diverse Houston and Chris Shepherd’s restaurant group – Juxtaposing many of the city’s ethnic cooking traditions with an emphasis on those from Asia onto a menu and often on a single plate and usually succeeding in dramatic fashion brought chef Chris Shepherd deserved national acclaim. That spotlight has helped shine more light on other local restaurants and chefs. Underbelly, boisterous and confident, interesting and extremely competent, also helped show that a meal built around small plates can work well. The terrific wine program from Matthew Pridgen encourages customers to drink wine with its palatable price points and that help enhance Shepherd’s cuisine. The space proved more attractive to Shepherd’s steakhouse concept (see below), but Underbelly lives on, exploring new directions in similarly enticing fashion, as UB Preserv just down the road.
Killen’s Barbecue – 2013 – Barbecue – Opening late that year, this barbecue joint in Pearland immediately became a destination for its brisket and beef ribs, especially, and seriously raised the bar for Texas-style smoked meats in the Houston area, providing the spark that has made the barbecue landscape significantly better in the ensuing years.
Common Bond – 2014 – Breads and Pastries – A slick café setting that is both a boulangerie and patisserie in the French sense – baking bread and creating pastries – it excels grandly with each effort, with bread that’s probably the best in the city, and served at many of the city’s top restaurants, and items like croissants that are likely as good as any made in this country. Somewhat like Killen’s for barbecue, Common Bond has made the baked goods scene better since its inception.
BCN – 2014 – Spanish – Though Spain had captured international attention with the ground-breaking molecular cuisine of Ferran Adria in Catalonia and others, and San Sebastian on its northern coast has the most Michelin stars per capita in Europe, the very few Spanish restaurants in Houston over the years had been rather dull and quaint until BCN opened in an attractive older house in Montrose, providing a very well-executed glimpse into Spanish fine dining, both contemporary and deeply rooted. This helped expand the culinary landscape and paved the way for its sibling, MAD, another and different, somewhat delirious Spanish gem.
Les Ba’Get – 2015 – Vietnamese 2.0 – The second generation of inexpensive counter service Vietnamese banh mi and pho specialists done more slickly, with better ingredients, better service, more alcohol and generally much more attuned to the broader city while still serving excellent food, this Montrose spot proved too popular for its tiny parking lot, but replaced by its sibling with a more limited menu, Les Noo’dle, as it moved to bigger digs in Garden Oaks. Roostar, the sandwich star, is another shining example of this very welcome concept.
Pepper Twins – 2016 – High quality Chinese inside the Loop – Authentic Chinese food was not to be found inside the Loop until the humble Sichuan specialist Cooking Girl opened deep in the heart of Montrose where it drew crowds, including plenty of Chinese nationals and even national press. Transforming into the similar, if more proficient Pepper Twins and multiplying into several locations throughout the area, the spots on W. Gray and Kirby are terrific places for affordable and delicious Sichuan-rooted fare notable for serving much higher quality proteins than most area Chinese restaurants. Not just these, but also Mala Sichuan and Wanna Bao are other Chinese highlights not far from downtown.
One Fifth: Steak – 2017 – Steak – The first yearly concept that’s part of a five-year plan of essentially five different restaurants in five years, this chef-driven steakhouse from Chris Shepherd and team was something much different than the familiar steakhouse concepts, and mostly just better, starring terrific steaks often cooked in an iron skillet that don't include a filet or New York Strip. Excellent starters and sides, plus and superb wine list on which Cabernet is not king complemented the beef and everything else on the menu. It lives on as Georgia James in the original home of Underbelly, and along with the Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, the best in the area.
Xochi – 2017 – Downtown Dining – The third upscale Mexican restaurant estimable husband-and-wife duo of Hugo Ortega and Tracey Vaught, this Oaxacan-themed destination joined the other two, Hugo’s and Caracol, as the top trio of Mexican places in Houston, and very invitingly set in the Marriott Marquis across from Discovery Green, it helped show that excellent dining can thrive downtown. Well-conceived and -presented, Xochi offers dishes that are unique to the area while remaining approachable to most – if maybe not the insect preparations.
Nancy’s Hustle – 2017 – EaDo – This fun, and quite delicious spot is well-suited for the still-gentrifying EaDo with its casual and quickly boisterous and nicely casual set-up in a newly constructed strip center in an older part of town coupled with a serious kitchen and an expertly chosen array of wine, cocktails and even beers to complement the evening. The mostly shareable and fun menu made for dining in stages, with flavors ranging from the Mediterranean on either side of the Bosphorus to stateside, all of which are enticing. Made for present-day diners, this is favorite of a great many diners, with good reason or reasons. The only knock on it is, with dishes that aren’t too reflective of the region, this could easily be set in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York or San Francisco. And likely doing extremely well there.