Food website Eater has released its first national list of essential restaurants across America, and saints be praised, four Texas restaurants are on it: Tei-An, the One Arts Plaza soba noodle palace from renowned chef Teiichi Sakurai; Franklin Barbecue, the world-famous barbecue spot in Austin; and two of Houston's most celebrated restaurants, Oxheart and Underbelly.
The list was compiled by Bill Addison, who was appointed as Eater's first national restaurant editor in April 2014. It represents an incredible amount of eating: 263 on-the-clock meals consumed in 29 cities during seven months of travel with 147 days in the field.
The restaurants are broken into categories, such as regional cuisine, tasting menus and global flavors. As might be expected, California and New York restaurants tally up the biggest numbers. But Addison hit the hinterlands as well, including Chicago; Las Vegas; and Boulder, Colorado. His list includes everything from the groundbreaking "meat-free" Vedge in Philadelphia to fantasy steakhouse Minetta Tavern in New York.
Addison, a former critic for Atlanta magazine and the Dallas Morning News, has what many a foodie would call the hottest critic job in the world: flying around to cities and eating at the best restaurants. But anyone who kept up with his reports would know that he was often called on to eat meals back-to-back.
"I asked myself about the meaning of the word essential at every stop," he writes in his introduction. "What are the indispensable restaurants across the nation right at this moment of our culinary history? Which ones jump-start the trends, which reset notions of cooking and hospitality, which illuminate a place or time? What assembly of restaurants, ultimately, reflects the fundaments of our culture?"
About Tei-An, Addison observes that "Dallas doesn't rank as one of the country's great bastions of Asian cuisines," but that "North Texas food lovers nonetheless know that they have something special in Teiichi Sakurai." Addison admires Sakurai's ability to transform soba into something exciting and recommends ordering the chef's seven-course omakase, where soba is always the finale.
Addison calls Franklin Barbecue "America's most famous barbecue joint" and counsels diners to order extra brisket for later: "It's Aaron Franklin's masterwork, a feat of smolder and flesh that reset the already towering standards in the Lone Star barbecue world ... so silken that, beyond the charred exterior, it has an almost pudding-like texture."
He says that Houston chef Justin Yu of Oxheart "may be the country's most visionary vegetable chef, combining ingredients that are ravishing to the eyes and electric on the palate." Only one of Oxheart's two six-course menus is focused solely on flora, "but both are meditations on the harvest," Addison writes.
He praises Underbelly chef Chris Shepherd for his efforts to create a sense of place. He describes a menu whose combination of boudin and chicken-fried pot roast "addresses the city's Cajun-Southern-Texan crossroads," while simultaneously drawing inspiration from the mom-and-pop restaurants in Houston's immigrant community.
"The crowds in the dining room rewardingly mirror the inclusive cooking," he says.