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The 20 Most Interesting Restaurants in Houston Right Now

What makes a restaurant interesting?

Every dedicated eater will have her own answers. It’s a personal question, and one that is time-sensitive. What seemed fresh and new one year may smooth out into the safely classic, or even the predictable. One diner’s thrills may leave another unmoved.

After a long career observing Houston’s restaurant scene as a living and a passion, I’ve got my own set of qualifiers for what captures my imagination. My interests keep evolving, and the list of what engages me deep in the second year of a global pandemic is not the list I would have made back in the Before Times.

Nor is it the kind of roster I might have compiled in my starry-eyed mid-20s, when Houston appeared on nobody’s national culinary map and everything seemed new and thrilling to me.

These days I make a deeper cut. It’s not always and only about the food to me anymore, although the excellence of a kitchen is the bedrock from which all else springs.

Lately, I’m drawn to restaurants that engage their communities, that show an enlightened leadership style or that operate on a business model uniquely suited to time and place.

A kitchen that keeps pushing technical or genre boundaries always grabs me. So does one that’s never satisfied resting on its laurels. I prize the sense of anticipation that comes with never knowing exactly what I’ll encounter on a menu as the days and weeks and seasons go by.

I’m fascinated by restaurants that create a strong sense of place with their menu, their setting, their creativity in knitting together this city’s culinary threads. I’m particularly invigorated by the sense of ferment in Houston’s barbecue community, where the evolution of the region’s smokehouse traditions has set a dizzying pace.

My hope is that you’ll use this list of what interests me most right now as a springboard to discovery, or to debate what restaurant qualities capture your own imagination.

Maybe you’ll give some of the spots on this list a whirl. Perhaps you’ll feel moved to reconnect with some of the Houston restaurants that stir your own interest. Either way, this much is certain: With revenues and business models disrupted by the pandemic, the restaurants that are the city’s cultural markers and social glue could use your support.

They are part of the city’s treasure. Long may they serve.

 

93 ‘TIL

The gist: At their ultra-casual Montrose bistro and record lounge, chefs Lung Ly and Jeff Potts offer a tight, seasonally changing menu that emphasizes local ingredients and a modern sensibility.

The hook: It’s always fun to taste the latest ideas from these two chefs. They can do pop cultural — their fried chicken sandwich might just be the best in town — right along with serious contemporary fare that riffs on Houston’s culinary influences. Though they opened nine months into the pandemic, they adapted nimbly: making great use of their big front deck; posting constantly updated menus on a website with visual flair; doing a careful job with carryout. For this critic, 93 ’Til was a cheerful port in the storm, comforting and thought-provoking at once.

What to order: The menu keeps changing, but look for interesting vegetable treatments along with ideas such as foie gras torchon with Meyer lemon jam and pecan butter, or shepherd’s pie based on sumptuous pork cheeks. Serious cocktails and entertaining wines from small, natural producers, too.

Outdoor option: The huge wooden deck out front has a wonderful Montrose vibe. And you can still hear the music from the vintage hip-hop vinyl collection at the heart of the place.

1601 W. Main, 281-846-6405; 93-til.com

BADOLINA BAKERY & CAFE

The gist: This fresh-looking contemporary Israeli bakery and cafe in Rice Village spotlights the singular pastry and bread making talents of Michal Michaeli. She made the bread service at sibling Doris Metropolitan steakhouse a Houston landmark.

The hook: Seldom have savory pastries been so exciting in Houston, a city in which the baking arts have finally begun to bloom. Every morning brings fresh surprise: A 6-minute egg shimmers like a flower atop a saucer-shaped field of spinach and feta; deeply caramelized onion, tomato and eggplant ride a focaccia raft; spicy shakshuka hides inside an envelope of soft, chewy dough. The sweet pastries gleam like luxury watches in their glass case, the espresso drinks are rich and strong. And the bread loaves, nested in round wall alcoves, are a multi-textured festival of seeds and unusual grains.

What to order: Spinach and cheese burekas; open-face focaccia; cardamom twist; cheesecake slice; Crioche, a buttery spiral mined with fresh strawberry and vanilla bean; seeded sourdough loaf; flat white.

Outdoor option: A delightfully landscaped front patio feels almost European.

5555 Morningside, 832-649-5909; badolinabakery.com

BRETT’S BBQ SHOP

The gist: Pitmaster Brett Jackson’s apprenticeship at the fabled Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor explains his stellar brisket and beef ribs. His creative chemistry with partner Jacqueline Herrera explains the exciting specials at their vest-pocket space in Katy.

The hook: The high-quality combo of old and new makes Brett’s stand out on Houston’s barbecue map. The sausage-making in particular dazzles; even a Caprese version, with mozz, sundried tomato and basil, works big-time. And depending on the day, you might score a smoky gumbo or brisket enchiladas. Brett’s smoked-meat muffuletta special was such a hit, it kicked off a summer’s worth of weekly American regional sandwiches, smokehouse style. Feel-good bonus: Community collaborations with other Katy restaurants lift all boats, from the Year of the Oxtail event to an enchilada throwdown.

What to order: The sumptuous Prime brisket; Double R Ranch beef rib; sausages of the day; red-skinned potato salad; red-cabbage slaw with cilantro and jalapeño; brisket-laced pinto beans. Don’t skip the barbecue sauce. It has the earthiness of a fine mole.

Outdoor option: Not now, unless you scarf your ’cue in the parking lot. But just wait until Brett’s relocates next year to a grand new space, complete with patio dining, in the Katy Boardwalk District.

606 Mason, Katy, 281-392-7666; brettsbbqshop.com

CAFE LEONELLI

The gist: New York celebrity chef Jonathan Benno dreamed up this gem of a museum restaurant; and a local crew from La Table and the associated Bastion Group, where service and precise cooking are twin strengths, run the front and back of the house.

The hook: Who knew cafeteria-style museum fare could be this good? Or feel so special? From the light sculpture “Moon Dust” floating over the luminous sweep of space, to the cordial counter line and pay-up-front, semi-serve efficiencies, Leonelli works like a small miracle. The depths of the soups, the glazed perfection of the parmigiana casseroles; the tart oil-and-vinegar spark of the well-dressed sandwiches: It all measures up to the grand setting by architect Steven Holl. Beyond lie the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s adjacent modern collections and the leafy Isamu Noguchi-designed sculpture garden. Go ahead, make a day of it.

What to order: Eggplant parmigiana; foccacia and salumi sandwiches made to order; brisk salads; ribollita; festive splits of Italian wine; Salvatore Martone’s Italian pastries, gelato, sorbetto and fanciful frozen pops from the bakery display and freezer cases.

Outdoor option: Plenty of cafe tables out on the Kinder Building’s skirts, with a view of the museum’s core structure, and its sleek Mies van der Rohe facade, across the street.

5500 Main, Kinder Building, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 713-714-3014; cafeleonelli.com

CRAFT PITA

The gist: At two years old, this Tanglewood cafe — from chef Raffi Nasr and his mother, Claudia, who’s Peruvian — is taking the Mediterranean sandwich-shop genre in a refreshing new direction.

The hook: Here’s an exciting example of the way scrupulous sourcing of local and regional ingredients can transform even casual, relatively inexpensive food. One taste of Craft’s stupendous chicken pita will show you why. The marinated and rotisseried bird, from Naked Truth Premium chicken, is a gently pulled fluff of pure poultry flavor — about as far from your basic frozen shawarma slices as it is possible to get. Everything else follows suit, from the colorful, vivid-tasting Middle Eastern dips and salads — in which local produce makes a difference — to the fabulous pink lemonade tinged with rose water.

What to order: Chicken pita; Akaushi beef kafta bowl with assorted sides and pickles; tabbouleh salad; labneh (yogurt) spread dotted with sesame seeds; babaganoush; rose water pink lemonade; Ixsir Rouge, Lebanese red wine.

Outdoor option: A couple of tables on the front sidewalk.

1920 Fountain View, 832-804-9056; craftpita.com

CUCHARA

The gist: Homey and sophisticated strike a fine balance at this Mexico City-style cafe, where the dining room’s an urbane work of art and the kitchen is populated by “moms” with roots from across Mexico. These women make their own kind of art.

The hook: At 9 years old, Cuchara is that rare restaurant that just keeps getting better. Co-owners Ana Beaven, a native of Mexico City, and her husband, Charlie McDaniel, keep things festive and popping. Amusing art debuts from muralist Cecilia Beaven, Ana’s sister. They’re always honing the menu, whether with revolving comida corrida lunches or specials such as chilaquiles borrachos with a strip of salted beef filet. Special events keyed to Mexican culture keep regulars engaged, from a Christmas craft market to their famous, costumed Day of the Dead celebration. Cuchara even organizes Xochimilco-themed Buffalo Bayou boat rides on weekends, complete with agave cocktails, botanas and a guitar duo. And the restaurant’s Sunday brunches are parties.

What to order: Pozole verde; Queso de Fogata skillet; Tacos Chelo with spicy green salsa; white, green or red chilaquiles with fried eggs from the brunch menu; encacahuatadas (potato enchiladas in peanut salsa); carafe of daily agua fresca.

Outdoor option: Lively front and side patio on a classic Montrose street corner.

214 Fairview, 713-942-0000; cuchararestaurant.com

FEGES BBQ

The gist: This sleek joint in the up-and-coming Spring Branch restaurant corridor — sibling to the groundbreaking original in Greenway Plaza’s food court — shows off the creativity lifting Houston’s barbecue world to new heights.

The hook: The modern mom-and-pop combo of pitmaster Patrick Feges and his wife, trained chef Erin Smith Feges, kicks barbecue traditions into a new gear. The Texas classics are solid, and the new-wave ideas delight. Side dishes riff on Houston’s diverse culinary traditions (channa masala, elote salad), and ’cue platters compete with fried chicken or smoked meatloaf during the dinner hour — a key component of the city’s new-wave barbecue spots. Smith Feges’ wine savvy, gleaned during New York stints at Per Se and Babbo, yields a revolving list that suits the menu by the bottle or glass. Even the contemporary room, filled with light and pops of color, feels fresh and different.

What to order: Cracklin’ nachos with smoked queso and avocado crema; brisket and pimento grilled cheese sandwich; charred Caesar salad with serrano vinaigrette and anchovy bread crumbs; porcini-crusted hanger steak with Romesco sauce; double-double Prime beef cheeseburger.

Outdoor option: Big front patio under wide, angled eaves, with a killer sunset view.

8217 Long Point, 346-319-5339; fegesbbq.com

KAU BA

The gist: Chef Nikki Tran always has something new up her sleeve at her cozy Montrose cafe, and her Vietnamese menu is intensely personal.

The hook: You’re going along for a wild ride when you dine at Kau Ba. The irrepressible Tran might regale you with the family history of her unusual Grandma Subsidy plate, a riveting array of coconut-stewed pork belly, singe-bottomed rice and tiny, crisped, fermented anchovies. She might coax you to try a new idea such as Kaubaccio, a fan of Wagyu carpaccio dressed with nuoc mam, peanuts, mint and basil. She might steer you toward one of the Gulf Coast-inflected ideas she pioneered at her “Viejun” restaurant in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). Whatever you choose, her dips, sauces and creative fruit elements will add sparkle.

What to order: Pork-and-shrimp dumplings; chef’s rolls of beef, mint and vermicelli wrapped in mustard leaves; Saigon Sunrise plate; Grandma Subsidy; Happy Salad; Pho Sizzle, slices of medium-rare Wagyu skirt steak with a pho reduction, onion, herbs and French butter.

Outdoor option: A pergola shades outdoor tables along the quiet Missouri Street side of the restaurant.

2502 Dunlavy, 713-497-5300; kaubakitchen.com

KOFFETERIA

The gist: Sweet and savory pastries that draw on chef Vanarin Kuch’s Cambodian roots — and Houston’s diverse foodways — make visits to his welcoming EaDo bakery and coffee cafe an adventure.

The hook: You never know what treasures you’ll find in the alluring display cases. Kuch makes ingenious use of Asian ingredients including ube and pandan, and he’s keyed into the cultural currents that have made his Hot Cheeto Croissant with nacho cheese a bestseller. Kuch is a master of balancing textures and flavors, salt and sweet and Houston-friendly heat. Look for such showstoppers as a laminated swirl of asparagus, Brussels sprouts and smoky whipped Gouda; or the London Fog roll, coils of feather-soft croissant dough cradling Meyer lemon and citron, its dusting of sugar tinged with Earl Grey tea. Warm service and an obvious care for the well-being of staff add even more to the appeal.

What to order: Beef pho kolache; custardy quiche of the day with a simple green salad; cortado; Salty Cambodian espresso drink; breakfast taco with egg, Chinese sausage and green-papaya pico; sprawling seasonal “muffin tops.”

Outdoor option: Seating on an appealing patio in an Astroturfed courtyard behind the bakery draws a lively crowd.

1110 Hutchins, No. 102; koffeteria.com

LUCILLE’S

The gist: Going into its 10th year, and amid a pandemic, chef Chris Williams has turned his modern soul-food spot into an essential — and transformative — local institution.

The hook: Williams swung into overdrive when the pandemic hit, forming the Lucille’s 1913 nonprofit that served more than 300,000 meals to Houstonians in need — and kept his entire staff employed. He ran a pop-up series that raised over $40,000 for out-of-work bartenders. He formed a restaurant group with Dawn Burrell, the talented chef from the late Kulture and “Top Chef” runner-up. Their partnership is popping out new restaurant concepts as well as re-energizing the food and special events at Lucille’s. Burrell was even able to launch a Fermentation Lab supervised by Williams’ chef de cuisine, Khang Hoang, with an eye to reducing food waste and supplying shelf-stable foods for the restaurant and the community.

What to order: Catfish and grits with oxtail jus; the habit-forming Hot Rolls; shrimp and grits in sherried tomato broth; bone-in whole fish fry with nuoc mam vinaigrette; roasted acorn squash stuffed with collards, quinoa and pomegranate; oxtail brunch omelet with crispy shallot salad.

Outdoor option: Market umbrellas bloom in a garden patio big enough to host live music for the popular Saturday and Sunday brunches.

5512 LaBranch, 713-568-2505; lucilleshouston.com

MARCH

The gist: The tasting menus at this young Montrose restaurant explore the Mediterranean basin with precision, creativity and a grounding in research. The current season focuses on the southern Spanish autonomous regions of Andalusia and Murcia.

The hook: It’s daunting to open an ambitious tasting-menu restaurant during a global pandemic. But March has set a remarkably high bar. Chef Felipe Riccio leads a kitchen that presented, for its opening season, some dazzling ideas based on cuisines of the North African Maghreb. Produce from the restaurant’s own farm found its way into dishes such as a barberry dolma wrapped in hoja santa leaf, or curls of pickled rose petal atop an amberjack crudo that had been coaxed into the form of a Moroccan tile. Master Sommelier June Rodil heads up a smart wine team that makes the pairings sing. Alex Negranza marshals a bar crew that turns pre-dinner snacks and cocktails in the lounge into a highlight. At these prices, you expect service to spin like a top. It does.

What to order: Sign up online for either a $175 six-course or a $225 nine-course tasting menu, with optional wine, sherry and cocktail pairings. The nine-course dinner arrives with so much detail, presented orally and on the plate, that it can feel a bit overwhelming. So don’t be shy about trying the less expensive option.

Outdoor option: No.

1624 Westheimer, 832-380-2481; marchrestaurant.com

PIER 6 SEAFOOD & OYSTER HOUSE

The gist: At last, a destination seafood restaurant for Houston’s corner of the Gulf Coast, complete with glorious bay views and ambitious food.

The hook: Prestige Oysters, the longtime family wholesaling business of owner Raz Halili, lies just down the bayside street at the tip of the sleepy San Leon peninsula. Halili has positioned his oysters at the heart of this expansive, airy new restaurant and recruited talented chef Joe Cervantez, an alumnus of Brennan’s and Killen’s Steakhouse. It’s an ingenious business model well suited to our region, where oysters — especially grilled oysters — are once again having a moment. Cervantez brings a sophisticated touch even to Gulf Coast classics such as a fried platter, with a crackle of filigreed potato threads wrapping the snapper. Fun cocktails and a well-chosen list of oyster wines will see you through sunset, as the lights of La Porte and Baytown begin to twinkle along the coastline.

What to order: Oysters on the half shell; Oysters Rockefeller; pan-seared grouper with charred tomato and coconut sauce; Tide to Fried platter; The Prestige grilled oysters with parmigiano and herbed shallot butter.

Outdoor option: An open-front section of the dining room; looks out on a broad waterfront dining deck sheltered by a high industrial roof.

113 Sixth St., San Leon, 281-339-1515; pier6seafood.com

PONDICHERI

The gist: Chef-owner Anita Jaisinghani never stops adding to the moving parts that keep her all-day contemporary Indian cafe spinning like a kaleidoscope.

The hook: There are always discoveries to be made in this vivid, soaring industrial space — whether at breakfast service, teatime in the upstairs Bakery Lab or cocktail hour at the snug bar. The expanded patio, which has migrated into the courtyard driveway, is as much a pandemic boon as the expanded to-go options. (Curry by the quart? Dinner for two with a bottle of wine? Yes, please.) Up a staircase lie a mesmerizing pastry case, sandwich and salad shelves, a fresh-pressed-juice and chai bar, condiments, spices and mixes for cooking at home. Jaisinghani’s restless curiosity doesn’t quit, and respect for good local ingredients, with attention to vegetarian and vegan requirements, is a hallmark of her cuisine. At 10 years old, Pondicheri seems as fresh and vital as ever, and uniquely geared for the moment.

What to order: Eggs with uppma, a savory grits hash; coconut pancakes; Vishnu vegetarian thali; Madras chicken wings; Sindhi dal with ginger and tomato; kalonji lamb chops. Unique cocktails and well-suited wines, too.

Outdoor option: Cafe tables with market umbrellas and potted shrubbery line the sidewalks and a marked-off section of the courtyard drive in the River Oaks development.

2800 Kirby, 713-522-2022; pondicheri.com

ROOTS WINE BAR

The gist: Good wines from 56 serve-yourself taps meet surprisingly serious Gulf Coast market cooking at this lively young Second Ward hangout.

The hook: Many things could have gone wrong at this wall-o’-wine-taps concept. But they didn’t. The wines issue from bottles held at cellar temperatures and stabilized under argon gas, so they stay in fine condition. They’re smartly chosen from a good mix of Old and New World producers, many of whom use natural methods. There’s a nice range of prices, and pours of 1, 3 or 5 ounces. Cards bearing wine notes make it easy to remember what you liked. Your credit card gets you a plastic card that makes the tap wall work. Servers take your food order, and you pop up and down, or inside and out, to match your wines — which makes it feel like a party.

What to order: The tight menu changes, but look for ideas like crispy-skinned snapper or dashi-buttered squid-ink noodles with mushroom conserva. New chef Andre Garza is a Culinary Institute of America grad who’s worked at Le Jardinier and the late Bramble.

Outdoor option: An inviting big front terrace, plus a side corridor that has the feel of a New Orleans alleyway. The view? An urban meadow with grazing carriage horses.

3107 Leeland, 713-818-2709; rootshtx.com

SOTO

The gist: This brilliant newcomer to the city’s sushi scene comes from Austin chef Andy Chen and his first lieutenant, Yoshi Katsuyama, a veteran of Uchi Houston.

The hook: Chen’s creativity paired with Katsuyama’s classic skills make for an exciting, top-of-the-line experience. In this handsome, modern room on Lower Westheimer, the raw fish fairly sparkles. The texture of the sushi rice is multidimensional. And Chen’s lapidary, highly specific garnishes and sauce bastes for each piece of sashimi or nigiri — such as shaved lemon rind and shiso leaf on lightly seared kinmedai, or golden-eye snapper — add to the thrills. Signature items range from purist (zuke magura, lean tuna house-cured in soy) to over -the top (a clothesline dangling raw salmon strips over a coffee-bean fire). The latter actually works. So does a housemade potato chip with salmon belly, truffle and lemon aioli; or lobster tempura with sweet mustard and microgreens. I’ve learned never to say “never” here.

What to order: Splurge on the $150 chef’s choice omakase tasting, or indulge in the day’s nigiri and sashimi specials flown in from Tokyo’s Toyosu market, including a striated puff of flounder fin (engawa) or slick freshwater cherry trout (sakura masu). And try the Otter Festival sake.

Outdoor option: No.

224 Westheimer, 713-485-4514; sotorestaurant.com

STREET TO KITCHEN

The gist: Skillful seasoning and handmade curry pastes make this sweet, small dining room — which hunkers alongside a gas station beneath an East End overpass — an unexpected new star.

The hook: Most Thai menus in Houston are set in stone. But at this spunky mom-and-pop, chef Benchawan Painter dreams up weekend specials that set it apart. She and her husband, Graham, started their business selling Thai omelets at the Urban Harvest farmers market. While there, they scout out great local ingredients for Saturday dine-in dishes such as Wagyu beef rib with green curry; or Talay Tod, a crispy fried seafood cake. The first fall pumpkins might show up grilled, with a flourish of the chef’s lovely whipped coconut “crème fraîche.” If you order online, you can pick up your food at a drive-thru window, a pandemic-era plus. If you dine in, you can BYOB, breath in the aromatic Thai herbs and spices, and enjoy Graham Painter’s ebullience in the role of host.

What to order: Pad kee mao (drunken noodles) cartwheeled with colorful chiles; fragrant green curry; sticky rice with mango. Don’t pass up the remarkably textured Garlic Chive Pancakes when they show up as a special.

Outdoor options: No.

6501 Harrisburg, 281-501-3435; streettokitchen.com

THEODORE REX

The gist: Chef Justin Yu’s Warehouse District flagship remains a boundary-pushing mecca for hyperlocal and seasonal cooking using modern techniques. The flavors are vivid, resonant, specific to Houston and our patch on the Gulf Coast.

The hook: From his days as a newly crowned James Beard Best Chef Southwest winner, Yu’s leadership style has evolved in a looser, more collaborative direction. It makes this casually serious spot more relevant than ever. Earlier this year, he urged his talented sous chef, Kaitlin Steets, to develop her own menu for a fascinating Franco-Texan pop-up dubbed Littlefoot. Then he and his kitchen team brainstormed an all-new fall menu that’s a knockout. A mung bean crepe folds around intense, nutty Alpine cheese and caramelized onion. Tagliolini warmed in cultured butter comes alive with dashes of oyster liquor, spry mignonette and coarse dried bread crumbs. Service under Diana Kendrick, the exceptionally gracious dining-room manager, remains a strong point. And — admirably — the staff gets health insurance; the minimum wage is $15 an hour; and both summer and winter breaks of a week (or sometimes longer) are paid time off.

What to order: Melon revved up with serrano chile and cilantro; grass-fed beef dumplings with parmigiana, ricotta and celery; smoked and braised greens in pot liquor with beans and a frill of pickled radicchio; warm buttercake with strawberry jam and cultured cream.

Outdoor option: Charming covered side porch with furnishings and air purifier.

1302 Nance, 832-830-8592; trexhouston.com

VIOLA & AGNES’ NEO SOUL CAFE

The gist: Chef Aaron Davis, who named his brightly painted Nassau Bay cafe after his two grandmothers, cooks from his family’s Louisiana roots and his own experiences cooking on far-flung offshore rigs.

The hook: The menu bristles with eclectic surprise. Caribbean-curried oxtails arrive with a deep mahogany gloss and a raft of fried plantains. Traditional vegetables sides get simmered with a not-so-traditional plant-based stock, so that they’re vegetarian — and the depth of flavor Davis achieves is like some magic trick. He goes out of his way to procure ingredients such as jasmine rice for those oxtails; or the freshest shrimp and crab for his weekly gumbos. He never stops tinkering with specials, either, which keeps the blackboard listings fresh. Davis’ fried catfish is freakishy good. His airy, fresh-fried pork rinds with hot sauce are the stuff of dreams. Just don’t be in a hurry. This is slow food, in the best sense.

What to order: Pork rinds; fried catfish sandwich on a Hawaiian roll, dressed with remoulade, bread-and-butter pickles and blueberry slaw; curried oxtails with plantains; andouille and smoked bacon Creole stew; veggie special with three sides, sweet cornbread and fried plantains.

Outdoor option: A couple of tables out front.

3659 Nasa Road 1, Seabrook, 281-326-2226; neosoulfood.org

XIN CHAO

The gist: Hallelujah! Undeterred by the pandemic, “MasterChef” winner Christine Ha, aka The Blind Cook, opened her long-awaited brick-and-mortar restaurant in partnership with her husband, John Suh, and co-chef Tony Nguyen, of the late Saigon House.

The hook: This lowslung, narrow joint in Old Sixth Ward is part of Houston’s new wave of adventurous second-generation Vietnamese restaurants. (See also: Kau Ba and Yelo.) They deal in a more personal, ingredient-focused cuisine — here with a Texas slant that involves obsessions including oysters, crawfish and woodsmoking. Ha and Nguyen are cooking up ideas such as grilled oysters scattered with scallion oil, pork cracklins, roasted peanuts and lime; or dumplings stuffed with smoked beef cheek in a spicy lemongrass “bun bo Hue” sauce. There are highly suitable cocktails to match, and weekly specials like the already famous Thursday fried chicken soaked in lemongrass-flavored buttermilk. Beef-tallow aioli and hot-sate-honey seal the deal.

What to order: Frozen Pandan Colada; Not Our Ma’s Egg Rolls, peppery numbers mined with crunchy glass mushrooms; smoked 44 Farms beef rib flat noodles; the cloudlike coconut bread pudding.

Outdoor option: The big, thriving patio with picnic tables and market umbrellas, set among stately bald cypresses and strings of lights, has been a pandemic-era balm.

2310 Decatur, 832-740-4888; xinchaohtx.com

YELO

The gist: This very modern banh mi shop is a key destination in the food wonderland that is Katy Asia Town, an up-and-coming development just north of Interstate 10.

The hook: Here’s another of those culinary partnerships supercharging Houston’s food culture. Gifted Vietnamese chef Cuc Lam was recruited by the savvy Alex Au-Yeung, whose Malaysian restaurant, Phat Eatery, has been such a hit right next door. They settled on next-generation banh mi sandwiches (the Vietnamese po-boy) as a draw, and mingled Malaysian ideas with Vietnamese to great effect. Patrons of the semi-serve counter can sample the classics — like the plush Vietnamese barbecued pork meatball sandwich of snugged into a light, crackle-crusted baguette with garlic aioli and a crisp counterpoint of pickled carrot and papaya. Or they can feast on cross-cultural sensations like the banh mi featuring Phat Eatery’s justly famous beef rendang. This, sports fans, is why we live in Houston.

What to order: Char Shiu Xiu Mai Banh Mi; Pho-Rench Dip Banh mi with chopped brisket (hello, Texas!), caramelized shallot, Thai basil and jalapeno slivers; any of the house-pressed juices.

Tip: Don’t be shy about adding some housemade pâté to your sandwich.

Outdoor option: Several high tables on the covered front sidewalk.

23119 Colonial Pkwy, Suite B3, Katy, 832-882-8818; yelohtx.com