During the months I labored on compiling this ranked list of my 100 top Houston restaurants, scarcely a day went by that I didn’t hear the inevitable objections echoing in my head. Gripes like “it’s arbitrary.” Or “it’s just one person’s opinion.” Or “why on earth did restaurant X not make the cut?”
Even, more pointedly, “How can she rate a food cart above a white-tablecloth restaurant with a brigade of trained chefs, a squad of polished servers and a crack sommelier?”
Imagining those arguments kept me awake at night, but they also kept me on my toes. And increasingly as I worked, I embraced the value of the project.
I’ve been thinking and writing about Houston restaurants for the better part of four decades. I’ve had a ringside seat as the city evolved from an imitative dining backwater to a multicultural powerhouse with a dynamic sense of its own culinary strengths and its own unique heritage. My choices for this top 100 list in large part reflect my understanding of where Houston is at this particular moment in its dining history, and where it is headed.
These are the restaurants that matter most to me right now: the ones that make me happiest, that stir the keenest anticipation and convey the richest sense of place. They aren’t necessarily the fanciest or most expensive or even the most ambitious restaurants in town, although there is a place in my heart and my head (and on the list) for restaurants that meet those descriptions. The quality of the food served was my first and foremost consideration.
I was liberal in my definition of “restaurant.” There are trucks and a cart on this list — places with no seating and few amenities, but the special gift of “restoring” diners that characterized those first restaurants to emerge in centuries past. These mobile purveyors are an emerging part of Houston’s restaurant scene and a source of considerable vision and energy. I honored that by taking them seriously.
Ranking the restaurants was the hardest work I have done in years. I made a rule for myself that I would return for a close look at restaurants to which I had given my top four- or three-star ratings in recent years, and that I would revisit as many two-star and one-star restaurant candidates as humanly possible.
It was humbling how often my assumptions were upended by my revisits. Restaurants I thought would rank highly disappointed me with woeful or mediocre meals. Restaurants I had all but forgotten about wowed me with their vibrance and consistent execution. Some restaurants fell off the list-in-progress when their talented chefs departed or when they closed.
I was reminded anew how changeable restaurants can be, whether from day to day or from year to year. The best of them, despite the odds, manage to maintain an even keel, and those are the ones that rose to the top of my ranking. I tried to make my list as diverse as Houston’s wide-ranging restaurant scene. But if no restaurants in a certain category truly grabbed me, I moved on. Maybe next year.
Also on the docket for next year are the important restaurants on which I haven’t yet formed a firm critical opinion. Time will tell where they fit into the scheme of things, but I was in no hurry to pass judgment on every new contender.
As to the arguments such a list is bound to stir up, I welcome them. A spirited dialogue about restaurants is a sign of an exciting food culture. Let the debate begin.
Alison Cook’s Top 100 Restaurants