Handicapping Alison Cook's 2013 Top 100 Restaurant List

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Photo by Troy Fields
Oxheart scores the top spot for the second year in a row.
Alison Cook, the Houston Chronicle's restaurant critic, unveiled her list of the top 100 restaurants in Houston (slideshow version here) to members of the media and invited chefs on the afternoon of Wednesday, September 11.

Cook tells us that she spent much of the past several months eating all over Houston and compiling the list. It's an admirable feat, of course, but it's also a source of controversy and discussion that continues for weeks after the list is published.

The top ten spots are filled by restaurants that most people probably expected to be there, but there are some surprises -- and even some snubs -- among the other 90 choices. If you're one who loves to eat like a critic and try out all of Cook's suggestions -- or even if you're just a lover of good food looking for something new -- you'll need some guidance to figure out which places on the list are worth a trip and the money.

To help you out, we've divided Cook's list into restaurants we totally expected to be featured; surprises; places that might break the bank; and hole-in-the-wall ethnic eateries. And then, of course, we'll mention some unfortunate snubs.

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Photo by Kaitlin Steinberg
Saw That Comin'
Cook's top ten list includes Oxheart, The Pass, Uchi, Underbelly, Tony's, Hugo's, Indika, Killen's, MF Sushi and Cove Cold Bar, in that order. While all of these restaurants are definitely worth a visit, we can't help but wonder how much Cook's decisions were influenced by national media coverage and hype. Oxheart scored the number one spot on Cook's list last year as well, and while we don't debate that it's a stunning, cutting-edge eatery, it seems almost cliché to rank it first again. Does the gripe of the everyman who reads about the marvels of Oxheart and The Pass and then doesn't find them at the top of the list come into play? We can only speculate.

Last year, Kata Robata, Feast, Hubcap Grill, Pondicheri and Pho Binh Trailer made Cook's top ten roster. Feast is now closed, and the other four have been bumped to the teens and 20s to make way for newcomers like Cove Cold Bar, MF Sushi and The Pass. It's been a good year for restaurant openings. Indika was moved up from 36, and Killen's (the steakhouse, not the much-talked-about barbecue pop-up) rose from 14.

Breaking the Bank
Sometimes, great food comes with hefty price tags, and a number of restaurants on this year's list show that it's not always cheap to dine like a king. Every restaurant in the top ten will set you back a good amount, though some, like Oxheart, are pretty reasonable for what you get. Underbelly, Hugo's and MF Sushi have lunch menus that feature some of the same items as the dinner menus at lower prices.

At Cook's event, a photographer asked the people around him how many of the restaurants on the list are inexpensive enough for anyone to go and have a meal without feeling guilty. The answer is most of them, if you order right. That said, a few good dishes at Kata Robata, Triniti, RDG + Bar Annie, Latin Bites, Costa Brava, Philippe, Brennan's of Houston, Vic & Anthony's, Coppa Ristorante, Restaurant Cinq, Haven, Kiran's, Kris Bistro, La Casa del Caballo, Rainbow Lodge, La Fisheria and Ristorante Cavour can all add up pretty quickly.

Branching Out
For those less inclined to drop hundreds of dollars at classic Houston hot spots, Cook's list includes a number of smaller, almost hole-in-the-wall ethnic joints. Many of these spots are in strip centers, tucked away among hairdressers and dry cleaners, and if you weren't seeking them out, you might never stop there.

For an authentic, no-frills experience, hit up Vieng Thai, Shri Balaji Bhavan, Asia Market, Karanchos, Rice Bowl Indonesian, La Guadalupana, Yum Yum Cha Cafe, Banana Leaf Malaysian Cuisine, Taqueria Laredo, Taqueria La Macro or Bon Ga Garden Korean Restaurant.

Surprises and Snubs
A few places made the list that, quite frankly, we weren't expecting. That's not to imply that these places are bad; they're just not what we'd have on our list. We were surprised, for instance, that La Casa Del Caballo was ranked at 53 and Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, which does its own butchering and dry rubbing in-house, isn't on the list at all. We were also surprised to see Killen's Steakhouse ranked so high. It's great steak, to be sure, but Killen's has really been killing it lately with its barbecue. Of course, the barbecue joint isn't exactly open yet, but we imagine it'll make the list next year.

Cook gave Ciao Bello a terrible review awhile back, so its inclusion on the list is unexpected. We're also curious to know what Indika did to move up from 36 to 7.

There are three sushi restaurants in the top 17, but nothing after that. Where is Soma? And while we're at it, where are all the food trucks? Bernie's Burger Bus was ranked 28 last year, but it's conspicuously absent from the 2013 list. There are a few barbecue trailers, but other than those, there are no food trucks represented. We think Pi Pizza deserves a shout-out, as does Oh My Gogi! BBQ

Other notable omissions include Brooklyn Athletic Club, Mockingbird Bistro and Backstreet Cafe. Apparently, Cook is just not feeling Americana this year.

Final Thoughts
This is a great list. It's a wonderful way for people who might not be overly familiar with the Houston food scene to learn a little about some of the best local restaurants. Most of the places on the list are deserving. There are a few question marks and a few possible snubs, but, generally, we agree with the selections. Some of the restaurants that placed lower on the list seem to be ones that Cook just really likes, rather than the best in Houston, but hey, it's her list.

So what are your thoughts on Alison Cook's 100 Favorite Restaurants for 2013? What's missing? What's wrong? We love dialogue and debate about food, so let's hear it.


Location Info

Hubcap Grill

1111 Prairie St., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Pondicheri

2800 Kirby Drive, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Oxheart

1302 Nance St., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Pho Binh

10827 Bellaire Blvd., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

The Pass

807 Taft St., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Uchi

904 Westheimer Rd., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Underbelly

1100 Westheimer Road, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Tony's Restaurant

3755 Richmond Ave., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Hugo's

1600 Westheimer Rd., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Indika

516 Westheimer Rd., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Killen's Steakhouse

2804 S. Main, Pearland, TX

Category: Restaurant

Kata Robata Sushi & Grill

3600 Kirby, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

MF Sushi - CLOSED

5887 Westheimer Road, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Cove

2502 Algerian Way, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant


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41 comments
uncsig
uncsig

Simply do not understand how Mark's has failed to make her list either time.  Saw her comment in either a chat or a blog post that she finds the food "too fussy" or words to that effect.  While I would personally easily put Mark's in a Top 20 [and probably Top 10], it is hard to figure its complete omission.

golferslk230
golferslk230

Oxheart is the best fine dining experience in Houston hands down. The list gets people talking so it serves it's purpose but it comes across as a haphazard effort.

mgovshteyn
mgovshteyn

I used to enjoy reading Houston Press food coverage to some degree, if only to disagree with someone. But lately the stuff you guys publish is so asinine I can't even get worked up about it. When did this become a high school newspaper?

paval
paval topcommenter

I disagree strongly in the point of objecting Oxhearts repeat as number one on her list (without giving any evaluation to neither Oxheart nor Cooks list), but in my opinion, if a chef or team manages to make consistently the best food of the city, why can they not get the recognition twice or three times. Why is that cliche? Following that logic Alain Ducasse would not deserve his six Michelin stars year after year because it is an overused opinion. 

Following that logic also, at some point the mediocre chef may make it to the number one spot, because in the previous years all the really good chefs already got recognized. 

I would agree on snubs to Mockingbird and a few others, but with 100 restaurants what value does this list really have? I mean there are 2500+ restaurants in Houston, but what does it mean to make a list of the 100 best. How is best categorized. Only by ones person preference, taste buds, one visit, etc? 

I would love to see one day a list of 10 best restaurants in Houston. Then really a lot of people will feel snubbed and a few will feel really special. It should be a team effort of the four or five biggest food critics in town plus one or two "amateurs" and the award should be done if possible anonymously, disguised as a birthday party among friends or alike. That would be real fun. 



bischoff
bischoff

Alison Cook is her own worst enemy. And her own best friend.

wadfw
wadfw

I haven't checked the list but my best guess is that the majority of them are inside the Loop, if I'm wrong let me know.

Nojusticenopiece
Nojusticenopiece

Bernie's Burger Bus was by far the biggest fall from grace, but deserved. They've gotten too big too fast, and quality has gone down in my opinion. When I first had Bernie's a few years ago, I had it on par with the best burgers in Houston. Now? Not so much. Again, and I'll probably get blasted for this, I don't get the Hubcap Grill hype. Give me Burger Guys any day over Hubcap or Bernie's. As many have stated, these lists are subjective. If you're seriously "into" food, Oxheart really is a fantastic experience. The normal meat and potatoes Texan will rage against it, and that's fine, but I think it is absolutely deserving of the top spot. Those who have followed Alison's career should know she would not simply be swayed by national publicity.

timblack2
timblack2 topcommenter

Yea. My first question was "what did Indika do to jump so far up and what did Kata Robata do to drop so far down?"

I would also say that Marks and Brasserie 19 are a snub, I know Triniti was all butt hurt for not making it last year bu they're there this year. Meh.  

No food trucks is kinda lame. Maybe a top 20 Food Truck list is forthcoming?

bennett59
bennett59

Not a single Pappas restaurant. Not a single Carrabba or Mandola restaurant. Are they lacking in food or that special sense of place she values, I wonder?


john1934
john1934

I think it's a great list. I have been to probably 75 of the places on the list. I would personally have Kata higher and underbelly, triniti and Haven lower. I love Himalaya but the last couple times I was there it seemed to have slipped and I enjoy Tandori Nights more now. I'll hit Himalaya soon again. I ate at Burger Guys original location recently and it was not good. First service not very good, then they have automatic paper towel dispensers at the table which is just odd and the burger was ok. Not like it was a year ago, the extra location seems to be affecting this one? Reef...ehhh, it's ok but I would rather get the snapper at Tampico instead. I could quip with many more but it's really just not interesting to pick the list apart. Anyway, I will try and go to the other 25 over the next year that I have not been to.

kagan34
kagan34

Elouise Adams Jones might feel snubbed a bit; Alison used to love her places; now neither Ouisie's Table nor The Bird and The Bear merit a mention.

Two Persian places, but not a single Lebanese/Middle Eastern place, that was somewhat surprising.

crodriguez11
crodriguez11

Pappas does "dry rubbing" huh? Interesting "technique".

johnnybench
johnnybench topcommenter

While it doesn't have an engine, and thus is not technically a truck, Melange Creperie at #15 is certainly high praise for the food truck scene.  

joanne5
joanne5

How many have you been to on her list?


FattyFatBastard
FattyFatBastard topcommenter

You forgot to place Pho Binh Trailer in the list of cheap eats.

slpaquette
slpaquette

"While all of these restaurants are definitely worth a visit, we can't help but wonder how much Cook's decisions were influenced by national media coverage and hype."

This is completely asinine. Alison is part of why they have national attention. 4 star reviews get attention.

How on earth is it cliché to keep Oxheart at number 1 if it is deserved and obviously Alison thought it was. Changing a position just because it was number 1 last year makes no sense.

mgovshteyn
mgovshteyn

@bischoff Totally agree. She is the cheese. And the macaroni. Stay frosty, my friend. 

FattyFatBastard
FattyFatBastard topcommenter

@Nojusticenopiece One of my best friends is the quintessential meat & potatoes Texan, and he thought it was one of the best meals he's ever had.  A shocking revelation from what I would have guessed.

golferslk230
golferslk230

Food trucks and trailers can get their own list: to me they are not restaurants. Too much comparing apples and oranges. Rank the top 10 and list the rest alphabetically.

LaurenK
LaurenK

@timblack2My take on the Indika thing (a) last year Alison put Pondicheri in the top10, so Indika got kicked down the list to balance out the Anita Jaisinghani love.(b) I think Indika sort of suffered a bit when Jaisinghani was focused on Pondicheri, and Alison was responding to that last year, but Indika has subsequently gotten more consistent and interesting again with more balanced attention from its head chef and owner.

OKGO
OKGO

@timblack2 Brasserie 19 has been without a chef for what 8 months now?  Heck I don't even think Amanda was EVER officially given the reigns when she was there.  That level restaurant with no chef for over a year...I'd leave them off too.

vonSchlieffen
vonSchlieffen

@kagan34

Maybe there's very little that's interesting about Lebanese that the other chefs haven't adopted. But to exclude Lebanese completely while having two Persian places seems a little generous (esp with Roost also on the list). 

I agree Tampico should be off the list; they've gone way downhill even before the Heights got lots of good places.

No Ethiopian? 

carriebwc
carriebwc

@kagan34 I finally ate at Ouisie's Table and felt terribly unimpressed.  It's like the crowd was made up of people who usually eat at the country club, so no wonder they like this place.

KaitlinS
KaitlinS topcommenter

@vonSchlieffen It's always entertaining to try to dissect stuff like this. But it's totally a matter of her taste. I LOVE Brooklyn Athletic Club and she doesn't. To each his/her own.

KaitlinS
KaitlinS topcommenter

@FattyFatBastard Um...there isn't a list of cheap eats. There's a list of expensive eats...?

timblack2
timblack2 topcommenter

@LaurenK @timblack2 Fair enough. So why the big drop for Kata. I've experienced only better and better there. But that just be me...but I doubt it.

timblack2
timblack2 topcommenter

@OKGO @timblack2 Fair point. They must have a pretty good sous though or excellent guys on the line. Every time we go (admittedly to have a few drinks at the bar and appetizers) the food is quite consistent and the place is packed. They sell an extraordinary amount of booze, so they are probably crying all the way to the bank being snubbed two years in a row.

kagan34
kagan34

@vonSchlieffen @kagan34

Interesting thought about Lebanese cooking and non-native chefs adopting the best parts of  it; but isn't the same true of Persian, note the Hispanic chef at Rainbow Lodge doing duck with preserved lemon. 

FattyFatBastard
FattyFatBastard topcommenter

@KaitlinS I define "hole in the wall, ethnic joints ...in strip centers" as cheap eats.  Either way, Pho Binh DEFINITELY fits the bill regarding that.  Place is in a trailer.

KaitlinS
KaitlinS topcommenter

@FattyFatBastard @KaitlinS True, it's a cheap place to eat. I just don't consider it a hole in the wall because 1. It doesn't exactly have walls and 2. I think it's too well known to be a hole in the wall. But you could argue that Vieng Thai is as well. So there's that. 

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