As 2010 draws to a close, it's time for us to look back at this remarkable year, and recognize the people, places, and things that we'll most fondly remember.

Trend of the Year

Burgers, burgers, burgers.  The humble hamburger represents a full-fledged trend in the Houston dining scene.  Always a popular choice, we've seen it elevated to new heights by both fine dining establishments and neighborhood joints.  It seems that every other new restaurant features a signature burger, and the result is that diners can enjoy a superb meal for an amazingly modest tariff.

Annoying Trend of the Year
Foodie Backlash.  During 2010, we saw an increasing number of pundits attack foodies and their enthusiasm for great meals, talented chefs, and the whole experience of dinner-as-theater.  Granted, some foodies brought this upon themselves, but we thought it was a bit disingenuous to attack an entire group based on the antics of a few overly self-serious standouts.

Closing of the Year

Tesar's.  One of the most promising restaurants outside the loop fell victim to the slow economy, a seemingly hexed location, and inexperienced management.  But out of the ashes of the restaurant's failure arose two talented young chefs who will be making their mark on the Houston restaurant scene in the coming years.

Honorable Mentions: Amici, Sabetta, La Trattoria, The Rockwood Room

Opening of the Year

Caffe Bello.  Tony Vallone has been the master of fine dining in Houston for decades, and many an eyebrow was raised when he announced plans to open a restaurant in Montrose.  This was not the playground of his usual crowd, but Tony, son Jeff, and savvy young partner Scott Sulma quickly charmed the denizens of Montrose with their spin on modern Italian cuisine, including the tasty, thin-crust pizzas that left all the critics swooning.

Honorable Mentions: Samba Grille, The Burger Guys, Cinq.

Burger of the Year

Hubcap Decker at Hubcap Grill.  This category was a tough one in 2010 - we sampled dozens of fantastic burgers, and didn't even work our way to the end the list of places we wanted to try.  But one burger stood out for us among all the rest - Ricky Craig's superlative Hubcap Decker, perhaps the finest incarnation of a traditional double cheeseburger we've ever encountered.

Honorable Mentions: Samba Grille Burger, Bleu Cheese Burger at Hubble & Hudson Kitchen, Beaver Burger

Foodie of the Year

Dr. Ricky.  Anyone following the Houston food scene knows that Houston has no shortage of people who are willing to share their experiences and opinions about food and dining.  But we think that Dr. Ricky goes above and beyond, and educates his audience with every post.  His knowledge of food is vast, and we had the pleasure of dining with him and learning that the man is just as insightful and interesting in person as he is online.

Honorable Mentions: Robb Walsh, J.C. Reid, Nishta Mehra

Critic of the Year

Katharine Shilcutt.  When Robb Walsh stepped down as critic for the Houston Press, a vacuum was formed, and we were very curious to find out who would fill it.  Enter Katharine Shilcutt, a popular local blogger and foodie who had recently started making great contributions to the Press's Eating Our Words blog.  Shilcutt had big shoes to fill, but her engaging writing style, quick wit, and genuine love of exploring new places made her the right choice for the Press.

Honorable Mentions: Alison Cook, Sarah Rufca

Restaurateur of the Year

Bryan Caswell.  We've watched Bryan Caswell expand his sphere of influnce from the kitchen of Hotel Icon to the living rooms of foodies across America.  Along the way, he's opened what many consider to be the best seafood restaurant in the United States (REEF), an outstanding slider joint (Little Bigs), and a unique spin on Texas Italian cuisine (Stella Sola).  Between all this he had a chance to represent Houston on The Next Iron Chef, and explain to up-and-coming cooks why they need to work in a Waffle House.  Next up?  Opening a classic Tex-Mex place in Montrose with Robb Walsh.  After that, we expect a run for the Governor's Mansion.

Honorable Mentions: Monica Pope, Jeff Vallone, Cary Attar

Chef of the Year

Cesar Rodriguez.  Houston is a town with a lot of churrascarias.  But one, Samba Grille, stands above them, with an impressive slate of composed dishes alongside the savory grilled meats.  Chef Rodriguez has brought his years of experience (with both the Vallone and Cordua organizations) to this new restaurant, and right out of the gate the new kitchen was firing on all cylinders.  We attended the soft opening, and can't remember a new organization ever executing so well.  The result was that after being open for only a month, Samba was on every critic's short list for 2010, and deservedly so.  From unique soups to a top-notch burger, the kitchen at Samba Grill delivers, thanks to Chef Rodriguez's watchful eye at the helm.

Honorable Mentions: L.J. Wiley, Jeramie Robison, Austin Simmons, Bryan Caswell

Restaurant of the Year

Hubcap Grill.  There are tens of thousands of restaurants in Houston, and the safe choice would be one of the city's superb fine dining establishments.  But to us, Hubcap Grill sums up what a great restaurant is all about: A superlative product delivered with vision and passion, making its guests very happy.  A tiny location in the shadow of the tall buildings downtown, Hubcap Grill has become Houston's go-to spot for great burgers, due to the hard work and brilliant insight of Ricky Craig, the chef and proprietor.  Ricky's approach to designing a burger is as meticulous as the work of any Cordon Bleu-trained chef, and the results speak for themselves: Hoardes of satisfied guests, and a list of accolades including three coveted stars from Alison Cook.  We concur with the esteemed Ms. Cook; Hubcap Grill has succeeded, and is among the very best restaurants to be found in the city.

Honorable Mentions: Samba Grille, RDG+Bar Annie, Chez Roux

We were recently out in Tomball and looking for something comfortable for dinner, and we weren't in the mood for Goodson's.  A quick scan through Yelp brought us to Gianna Italian Kitchen.

What a great neighborhood place.  Warm, inviting environment, even though it's nestled in a strip center.  Very friendly staff.  The kind of place where you're a regular on your second visit.

And there's excellent Italian food - nothing trendy, but the type of Italian-American cuisine that comes to mind when most folks think of Italian.  A superb Caesar salad, with a spicy dressing made with actual anchovies.  Delicious pastas, and a deft hand on the grill with meats.

Something we love:  Many of the dishes are available in either a full or an appetizer portion.  This lets kids (or those who aren't too hungry) dig deeper in the menu while not being stuck with a huge portion they won't finish.  More restaurants should consider doing this.

Gianna is exactly the type of Italian restaurant we'd love to have in the Woodlands.  But we'll be driving to Tomball regularly to enjoy it.

(Apologies for the lack of photos - it was dim in the restaurant, and none came out.)

Gianna Italian Kitchen - 28301 Hwy 249 - Tomball, Texas 77375
281-290-6676 -

Gianna Italian Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Chuy's may be the most misunderstood Tex-Mex place in Houston.  Some folks love 'em, and some folks hate 'em, and there's very little middle ground.  Rarely do we see such polarization in how patrons react to a restaurant.

Why?  It's hard to tell for sure, but we think it's a combination of food that's a little out of the ordinary, and an atmosphere that's not typical for Houston.  Chuy's is one of the handful of restaurants that we consider to be a little bit of Austin in Houston, and the Austin attitude permeates everything that Chuy's does.

We're firmly in the camp that loves Chuy's.  The Austin-based chain opened its first location in 1982, and we've been eating there ever since.  Chuy's version of Tex-Mex is focused a few hundred miles to the west - there's a strong New Mexico influence, with plenty of dishes featuring green chiles.  Their annual Hatch chile festival features peppers grown by one particular farm in Hatch, New Mexico.

Our go-to dish at Chuy's hasn't changed in 20 years.  It's the Chuy's Special, a unique flat enchilada dish made with housemade blue corn tortillas, roasted chicken, white cheese, and Chuy's tomatillo sauce.  It's flavorful without overpowering heat, and has long been one of our benchmark enchilada dishes.

Chuy's Special

But as any fan will tell you, the appeal at Chuy's is more than the food.  Ever since the original Barton Springs location opened, the Chuy's experience has been shaped by the zany decor and the often offbeat but dependably friendly staff.

The Chuy's located across from the Woodlands delivers both in spades.  Our favorite room there is the bright, airy bar, complete with a thatched roof, some delightfully kitchy chandeliers, and an airborn school of wooden fish.  It's a throwback to an older school of restaurant design where the space was more than one big room with some theme-appropriate artwork on the walls.  Another thing we love about Chuy's is that as they open more locations, they don't just replicate their design.  Each Chuy's has its own feel and becomes a part of its neighborhood.

The final part of the Chuy's equation is their quirky, friendly staff.  The vibe of the original Austin location comes through in the attitudes of the servers, but Chuy's has figured out a way to make sure that this doesn't result in the cool-but-lackadaisical service that's all too often found in the River City.

On our last visit to Chuy's, we ran across a particular server who went so far above and beyond what we expect in a family restaurant that she deserves notice.  Anjelia Richmond, who's known at Chuy's as "Cookie", was perhaps the warmest, friendliest service person that we encountered all year.  Yes, we were in a restaurant, but we were treated as if we were in Cookie's home.  And Cookie was going to make sure that we felt welcome.

My bride was recovering from foot surgery, and Cookie took it upon herself to make sure that we were comfortable, well fed, and never lacking anything.  Our ramekin of the essential Creamy Jalepeno dip was never empty.  Cookie even positioned the chairs so my bride could elevate her foot, and offered to bring an extra cushion.  Her ready smile and hearty laugh were heartwarming, and her positive attitude was infectious.  We really didn't have a choice but to hug her on the way out.  
Cookie impressed us so much that before our next visit, we called ahead to see if she was working, fully planning to arrage our visit around her schedule..  We've never done that before at a restaurant.

So thank you, Cookie, for taking such great care of us, and for making us feel more like friends than like guests.  Have a Merry Christmas, sweet lady.  We'll see you soon.

Chuy's - 18035 IH-45 S - Shenandoah, TX 77385 - 936-321-4440 -

Chuy's (Shenandoah) on Urbanspoon

Update: Crust Pizza is now open.  We tried 'em out, and here's our take on the food and the experience.

The Woodlands has many places to dine out.  Most are units of large chains, but we've noticed an uptick in independent, mom-and-pop restaurants with owners who are active, involved, and on the premises.

The latest privately-owned restaurant to appear on the scene is Crust Pizza Co., located at Woodlands Parkway and Panther Creek in the Panther Creek Village Center.

Crust Pizza Co. - Under Construction

(Crust Pizza is so new that they're not yet open - their contractors were busy finishing out the restaurant when we stopped in for a visit.  The brand-new pizza oven was still in its wrapper, and the phones were in their boxes, awaiting connection.)

Crust Pizza Company is the brainchild of Clint Price and Mark Rasberry.  Clint lives in the Woodlands, and Mark and his family are relocating from Dallas after the school year ends.

Mark and Clint describe the restaurant as a family-focused spot, with handmade food, good prices, and a slightly upscale family atmosphere.  A variety of pizzas will be front and center, with Chicago-style thin crust and a wide variety of fresh toppings.  Pasta, sandwiches, and salads will also be on the menu, and daily specials will be offered.  Beer and wine will be available as well.

The cozy location will seat about 50 people indoors, and another 25 or so on the wraparound patio amidst the pine trees.

We're looking forward to the grand opening of Crust Pizza Co., and will have a full review once they're up and running.

Crust Pizza Co. - 4775 West Panther Creek Drive - The Woodlands, Texas 77381 - 281-298-8844

We're big fans of the food of New Orleans.  Whether it's the upscale Creole cuisine served at the fine restaurants around the Crescent City, or the down-home Cajun food found at hole-in-the-wall kitchens all over Louisiana, we love the cuisine of our neighbor to the East.

The only problem is that it can be tough to find... especially as you get farther outside the Loop.

So you can imagine our interest when we received a tip from a reader about a new restaurant opening on Market Street.  Called Schilleci's New Orleans Kitchen, it's a family-run restaurant located on Market Street in the shadow of the Avia Hotel.

Wait a minute.  Family run?  On Market Street?  The place where the new Tiffany's just opened, and Tommy Bahama's is inexplicably busy all the time?

It's true.  The Schilleci family has opened this intimate, elegant French Quarter-style restaurant on Market Street.  The family had operated a small carry-out cajun cafe in Spring, but when their lease ran out, they decided to head north to the Woodlands to open a full-service restaurant.  Market Street is truly becoming the culinary capital of Montgomery County.

The restaurant is strategically located by both the Avia Hotel and the parking garage.  So unlike just about every other restaurant on Market Street, parking should be plentiful and nearby.

We visited Schilleci's for a late lunch on their first day in business, and met most of the family.  Wayne Schilleci, Sr is the patriarch of the family; he and his wife Debbie were overseeing the bright, airy dining room from a strategic location in the corner.  Wayne Sr was also talking with every customer, soliciting feedback and displaying the type of humility that's rare in the restaurant business.  Their son Zach was overseeing the front of the house, welcoming each guest and coordinating the operation of the very new waitstaff.  Wayne Jr is the chef, and was putting his kitchen staff through their paces - in this brand-new restaurant, many of the cooks had never worked together before, and had to learn to coordinate their efforts.

The Schilleci Family: Debbie, Wayne Sr, Zachary, Wendy, Wayne Jr

But how is the food?  We know it's not fair to pass judgement on a restaurant's cuisine on its first day, but we want to pass along our initial impressions.  We sampled a couple of New Orleans classics:  Jambalaya and Seafood Gumbo.

First, the Jambalaya.  Our cup was overflowing with chunks of soulful, coarse-grained Andouille sausage and thick slices of spicy Italian sausage.  Completing the dish was some beautiful saffron-colored rice, seasoned with peppers, onions, and a hint of celery.  The heat level was moderate, starting deceptively slowly and building up to a nice controlled burn.  The heat was masterfully balanced with the savory flavors in the dish, something that's all to rare in Cajun cooking.

Next up was the gumbo.  We sampled Schilleci's seafood gumbo, a sharp, spicy roux packed with plenty of nicely-sized gulf shrimp and lump crabmeat.  The roux had a simmering, balanced heat, and the onion, pepper, and okra flavors melded to create an exceptional background for the fresh seafood.

We love gumbo, and Schilleci's may be the best gumbo we've had in Texas.  We were particularly impressed that we didn't have to kick up the roux with a few drops of Tabasco - Chef Wayne is not afraid to season his gumbo, and deftly walked the line between too bland and too hot.

Wayne Schilleci Jr and Zach Schilleci

Schilleci's didn't feel like a restaurant that had just opened.  The staff was knowledgeable and friendly, the food was very well prepared, and the cozy interior was beautifully finished - the dove grey walls were adorned with  photos of New Orleans taken by another family member.  Considered touches were all around; even the ceiling was tiled with ornate squares that evoked the feeling of a hundred-year-old establishment in the Quarter.  And the Schilleci brothers seem to naturally fall into the two key roles needed for a successful restaurant - a talented chef in the back of the house, and a gracious host who's working the room and keeping the patrons happy.

We predict that Schilleci's will be a big success; it's a totally different dining option for Woodlands residents, and the restaurant is overflowing with the type of warmth that only comes from a family-run establishment.

Schilleci's New Orleans Kitchen - 9595 Six Pines Drive Suite 120
281-419-4242 -

Schilleci's New Orleans Kitchen on Urbanspoon

It's an exciting time to live in the Woodlands.  Every month brings two or three interesting new places to eat.  However, as a burger lover, 2010 has been more down than up - we still lament the closing of Tesar's, home of one of the best burgers that we've ever had the pleasure of enjoying.  We've sampled some very good burgers out here, but none have yet climbed that lofty perch that is left vacant by the closing of Tesar's.

But we keep looking.

Ever since we inadvertently crashed the grand opening party, we've been big fans of Hubbell & Hudson.  Their flagship Waterway location is a gourmet grocery store, and upscale bistro, and a highly-regarded cooking school - a combination that warms the heart of any food lover.  We were excited to hear that they were planning a second location - where would it be?  Downtown Houston?  The Galleria?

Hubbell & Hudson Kitchen

It turns out that H & H's second location was to be right here in the Woodlands, across on Research Blvd just east of Gosling.  Called Hubbel & Hudson Kitchen, it's a tightly edited version of the original concept.  The expansive gourmet market has been focused on the gourmet items you might want to pick up on your way home from work, and the bistro has been pared back into a counter-service fast-casual concept.

What you see as you walk in

We were very impressed by the concept, and how well it should fit into the modern busy lifestyle.  Stopping in on the way home is much more convenient than pulling into HEB's Woodlands Market (or Hubbell & Hudson on the Waterway), yet you still have a store full of high quality items from which to shop.

The market area has a carefully edited selection of high-quality meats, fresh vegetables, cheeses, beer and wine, dry goods, sauces, snacks, and even kitchen tools.  If you're heading out for a picnic, this may be the perfect quick stop.

Grocery aisles at the back of the store

So is it safe to conclude that Hubbell & Hudson has created an upscale convenience store for the gourmet shopper?  Yes, but that's only part of the draw.

Dining is the second part of the H & H Kitchen equation.  Along the right side of the store is the meat counter, and at the end of it is the order point for the fast casual restaurant.  The menu should look familiar to those who have visited Hubbell & Hudson, although it's been slightly streamlined.  The selection of sandwiches and design-your-own steaks are still there, as are the reason we're visiting - the variety of burgers.

Our first burger was the Bistro Burger.  It's 10 ounces of house-ground sirloin, topped with white cheddar cheese, thick-cut peppered bacon, finely shredded lettuce, crunchy dill pickle slices and and grilled onions.  It's served on a soft housemade bun, with a side of fries.

I enjoyed this burger.  The over-half-pound patty was cooked slightly on the well side of medium, but there was still a bit of ooze going on.  The smooth, mild cheese was complemented by the peppery bacon flavor, and the pickles added a nice crunch.  This burger clearly reflects its quality ingredients, and I'd order it again.  But I wasn't blown away.

There was one small problem - the side of fries were nowhere to be seen.  When I picked up the burger, the counterman said that he'd bring them out when they were ready.  But after five minutes, they hadn't appeared.  I didn't want the burger to get cold, so I ate it anyway.  On the way out I asked the guy at the counter if they'd forgotten about our fries, and he apologized and asked if I wanted them to go.  The idea of re-warming fries at home isn't appealing to me, so I passed.

At this point I was a bit disappointed with my experience here; the burger was good, but not great, and the mix-up on the fries was a blemish on what seemed to be a very smooth operation.

Apparently my search for the next great burger would continue elsewhere.  Oh, the sacrifices I make for you guys.

On the way out the door, their greeter, a charming woman named Miriam, asked me if I had enjoyed my visit.  I told her about the missing fries, and she asked me to wait while she got the manager.

Ricardo, the manager on duty, apologized profusely for their mistake, and insisted on refunding the entire cost of my meal, asking that I give them another try.  (I hadn't identified myself at this point, so I assume that any customer would get the same treatment.)  I told him I was impressed by how he handled the situation, and that I looked forward to giving them another chance.

The opportunity came sooner rather than later.

My bride and I were in need of a quick bite the next day, so we decided to return.  The place was hopping, and we ordered and were lucky to snare a table.  In short order our food arrived.  This time I tried a different burger, the bleu cheese burger.  Eight ounces of chopped sirloin topped with melted bleu cheese, baby spinach in place of lettuce, and sauteed onions.  I splurged an extra dollar to substitute their Parmesan truffle fries for the regular french fries.  I also asked for it to be cooked medium rare.

What came out looked gorgeous - the thick, hand-formed patty had an aggressive char, and the bleu cheese had been melted and slightly carmelized.  The sauteed onions were totally different than the grilled onions on my previous burger, and the baby spinach was an interesting idea that I was anxious to sample.

I assembled the burger, and bit into it.  Wow.  This was a whole 'nother level.  The confident beefy swagger was front and center; not surprising, since the cooked patty was about an inch thick.  The tang of the bleu cheese and the bite of the sauteed onions sang a sharp yet controlled acidic tone that paired perfectly with the earthiness of the beef.  The housemade bun was slightly sweet, and was a solid foundation for this superlative burger.  The gorgeous patty was indeed cooked medium rare, and the center was warm, pink, and oozing with enough juices that made me go through three napkins before I was done.

Bingo.  My new favorite burger in the Woodlands.  By a longshot.  Even more amazing is the price: $8 with fries.  That's a steal for this sort of high-quality burger; a steakhouse could sell this for double the price and still be offering a good value.

Ever since the demise of Tesar's, I lamented the fact that there wasn't a burger out here that I truly craved, and could rank among the very top in Houston.  But Hubbell & Hudson has produced a superlative product that stands with Hubcap Grill, Beaver's, and Samba as the very best burgers to be had in Houston.

If you love burgers, you've gotta check them out.

Hubbell & Hudson Kitchen - 4526 Research Forest - The Woodlands - 281-203-5650

Hubbell & Hudson Kitchen on Urbanspoon

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