August is here and with the summer in full blast and fall on the horizon, and most likely ushering in dozens of big restaurant openings, the Houston Press thought it would take a look back at the restaurant reviews of 2017 so far. These are our favorite reviews, and these standout eateries offer everything from takeout to barbecue to stuffed quail and then some.
Here are our top picks.
The General Tso’s chicken at Rice Box is served hawker-style, delivered from the steam-filled fiery kitchen through a small sliver of window space. A not-so-average Chinese take-out box is stuffed with dark, honey-golden mounds of bite-sized battered and fried chicken bits glistening with the glow of a sweet, savory sauce, and a couple of pieces of steamed broccoli. The chicken is a satisfying balance of meat and batter, and unlike many other versions around town, the sauce is not heavy or overly sweet. Buried underneath is a healthy helping of steamed rice, and a fat Chinese egg roll sits atop the opened box of food.
Chef Kris Jakob’s beef tartare arrives with an opened raw egg, a small mound of arugula and radicchio kissed with a light and tangy sweet dressing and a few pieces of the house-made boule. The award-winning tartare is an elegant and imaginative combination of Heart Brand Akaushi, cornichon, capers, pickled onion and a house made curry ketchup. The curry is the note that rockets this dish out of the flavor-stratosphere.
We arrived at Kitchen 713 as the edges of Tropical Storm Cindy teased the city, pleated gusts of rain making us hesitate just at the edge of the causeway from the parking garage. We paused, waiting for a break in the rain before making the short dash to the door. As we hemmed, a Kitchen 713 staffer spotted us and ushered us in through the back door, saving us a soaking. It was a small gesture, but it set the pace for the restaurant’s friendly, familial service, which helps ground the freewheeling flavors in Southern hospitality.
"This is the bougiest samosa I’ve ever seen,” my dining partner whispered to me as the beautifully plated pastries arrived. It was fancy, to be sure — the crab versions come two to an order for $14 (the regular potato ones are just $4 each).
But after I sliced into it, it became clear why the samosa demanded such a price premium — it was crammed full of tender, juicy crab meat, and there were few vegetal distractions. The lack of typical potato made it seem more like a deconstructed crab cake inside a samosa shell, but no complaints. The small mound of chutney provided a perfect contrast to the samosa; I just wished there’d been more of it, but perhaps that’s why the waiter at Kiran’s had suggested the sweet-sauced fish as an accompanying appetizer.
Who would’ve thought that the star of a butcher’s-haven restaurant would be the bird? Brown-sugar-glazed and basted in red pepper oils, four larger-than-life pieces of fried chicken perched atop a mildly sweet waffle pillow of cornbread came out of the kitchen, led by a waft of fiery fried-ness. The Angry Bird at Ritual is a shareable plate diners will not want to share. The spices inside and on the crust of the moist, tender chicken were just hot enough, the corn in the waffle batter brought a fluffy freshness to the mix, and the thinly sliced, lightly pickled cucumbers were a delightful addition of texture and tang. A forkful of all the components dipped into the spiced maple syrup made for one heavenly, sweet and spicy bite.
I really like the pulled pork at The Pit Room, one of the city’s newest and most highly praised young barbecue joints. I didn’t expect that. While the stuff is popping up on barbecue menus across the state with more and more frequency these days, it still tends to take a backseat to the Texas Trinity of brisket, pork ribs and sausage. Not so at The Pit Room.
The CFQ, chicken-fried quail, arrived with a thin and crispy golden-crusted batter, pregnant with the promised treasure of mashed potatoes stuffed inside the tiny bird. There was true delight in sticking my knife through the center to discover that the simple description “mashed potato” did a disservice to what we found; the finely whipped potatoes almost outshone the vessel that carried them.
"That looks like a potsticker,” my sister said as she tapped one of the two pierogi flanking the beautifully caramelized steak resting on a bed of haricot vert, delicate ends still intact. The flat, bronzed face of the half-moon-shaped pastry did indeed resemble an Asian dumpling, but the crisp shatter of the fork through the dense dough and into the creamy, cheese-laced potato filling yielded a distinctly non-Asian flavor.
At most restaurants, the daily specials spiel given by the server is something to be endured. Half the time the server delivers a forced, expressionless series of semi-memorized words, often stumbling or referring to a written cheat sheet. Richard, our server at Killen’s STQ, knew his specials by heart, and it showed, so our party listened.
Did we want the smoked 48-hour braised beef cheeks over mezcal-lime risotto by chef Teddy Lopez? It sounded good, but not as good as the last recitation: “And for our steak special tonight, we have a 48-ounce Snake River Farms long bone-in Wagyu rib eye. I tried it earlier, and in my opinion, it’s the best thing on the menu today.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"I never thought I liked mole.”
That’s what my wife keeps telling people after eating at Xochi. It was the mole amarillo that shifted things for her. It came in a small white bowl, nestled next to three of its brethren, in a mole tasting ordered at dinner late one Sunday evening, and it was stunning. Nuanced and deeply flavored, somehow subtle despite its twangy, olive-briny backbone and pops of fruitiness, the mole amarillo sang with a basket of simple, fresh corn tortillas, the only company provided alongside the moles, and the only one wanted.