Houston’s food scene is a cultural experience, making the Space City ideal for menu inspiration. In recent years, options have skyrocketed inside and outside the interstate 610 Loop. If 2023 James Beard Foundation nominees and winners are any indication, Houston is on fire. Benchawan Jabthong Painter of Street to Kitchen won Best Chef, Texas, for elevating Thai classics; while Tatem6 earned a finalist nod for Best New Restaurant with its take on Mexican cooking.
Without question, the diversity of Houston’s food population extends across the globe. Be forewarned: A meaningful exploration may require multiple lunches and dinner – sometimes in a day. Here’s a start, in a nod to the JBF-anointed.
Husband-and-wife duo Chef Martin and Sara Stayer are finding success with their vision of a new American restaurant: a house party vibe, vinyl spinning during service, and an ever-changing menu that plays on words (Aww Shucks Oysters; Come Quail Away; Don’t Worry, Brie Happy; and HOV Lane to describe shareable entrées). They’ve also compiled an extensive wine and spirits list, as well as creative and traditional cocktails. The restaurant’s namesake, Martin Stayer’s grandmother Nobie, also inspires in Nonno’s house-made tagliatelle with a simple yet complex Bolognese. Whole pies ($48) and olive oil cake ($72) that customers can order in advance add to the bottom line and extend their brand.
TOBIUO SUSHI & BAR
Since 2019, Chef/owner Sherman Yeung (formerly of Uchi and Yauatcha) has gained a following with his striking presentation of globally-sourced raw fish, a steakhouse-esque aging program and small plates that blend East with West. Yeung offers an a la carte menu of hot dishes, such as U10 scallops with corn and bok choy and wagyu hot stone for an interactive table experience. There’s also a nine-course $110 tasting menu that helps control food costs, and a creative nod to beverages via elevated craft and nonalcoholic cocktails. Pastry Chef Jio Dingayan draws his inspiration from his Asian heritage, childhood experiences and nature. The ube churro with ube ice cream, mango cake, miso caramel and ube-infused sugar measures high on the wow factor for flavor and color.
Launched by a Greek and Ecuadorian couple in the early 1990s, this Houston institution has maintained a loyal following through consistency – a benefit of a family-run operation. The Platsas family offers Mediterranean and Latin influences that run through the otherwise traditional American selections. Dishes include Baklava French Toast (honey and nuts layered between slices of challah bread dipped in a batter, grilled and finished with two scoops of Greek-style frozen yogurt). On the savory side: Chilaquiles Divorciados (crispy corn tortillas simmered in two “divorced” salsas, daily-made ranchera and salsa verde, queso fresco, crema fresca, pickled red onions, refried beans and two eggs).
With an open kitchen equipped with a woodburning grill, this restaurant checks all the boxes, from the inviting décor to a menu that reflects just about every current trend: a section devoted to vegetables; hearty salads; a pasta program that includes buckwheat ravioli; grilled whole fish; cacio e pepe pizza; and a steak that benefits from the smokiness of the wood. If diners want to splurge, they can order caviar service. Good Thyme Farm Honey Cake proves dessert is not an afterthought, but a way to boost sales. Ditto on the five nonalcoholic cocktails that rival the flavor of their booze-charged counterparts, priced at $10.
Big Vibe Group has added Flora to its portfolio – a modern take on Mexican cuisine, with a Texan sensibility. By surrounding the interiors with floor-to-ceiling windows, cobalt blue chairs and more than 40 chandeliers, Big Vibe has created a glass treehouse of sorts. The menu has built an audience with a raw bar that includes a shareable Gratify Ceviche (red snapper, shrimp and octopus served over a mango habanero reduction and layers of avocado, red onion, serrano, radish and cucumber), solid fish offerings (whole snapper two ways) and a margarita menu. The restaurant prides itself on stellar service and making diners feel welcomed.
Shubhangi Musale and her brother Mahesh Puranik had a long-held goal of opening a restaurant together. But when he died unexpectedly, Musale and her husband, Neelesh, fulfilled that dream by opening Mahesh’s Kitchen in his honor. The menu is not tied to a particular region of India, but rather offers modern interpretations of the country as a whole. There are traditional favorites as well, including a tikka masala eager to be swept up with buttery naan. They focus on consistency, local ingredients, attentive service and a committed team to create an impressive dining experience – one that keeps diners returning.