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GQ's Best New Restaurants in America, 2019

Brett Martin spent the past three months eating high and low, searching for the most delicious new dining establishments in these 50 states—plus that island down south that should be one, too.

By Brett Martin

April 22, 2019

Let me begin with two dinners in Houston. These were two meals over the course of 24 hours that felt like they summed up what it meant to eat in America in 2019. It was not surprising that they took place in a city I've come to believe is not only one of the country's best food cities but also, increasingly, a bellwether of where its dining winds are blowing.

So: Night One found me at Georgia James, the steak house opened in October by Chris Shepherd in what used to be his James Beard Award-winning flagship, Underbelly. It is a palace of unrestrained pleasure as maybe only a steak house can be: loud, buzzy, giddy, awash in beef and whiskey and oil money. Call it Big Derrick Energy. The signature item at Georgia James, though it is not printed on the menu, is the Baller Board: a wooden plank that on any given night will be heaped with some combination of steaks, other beef cuts, pork shoulder, lamb chops, whole fried chickens, boudin-stuffed quails, duck legs, cow hearts, lobster tails, crab claws, and God knows what other leftovers from a medieval post-hunt still life. (Prices vary, but if you have to ask…) Viewed from above, the boards resemble primitive fertility totems, complete with the priapic bone of a porterhouse thrusting up from the center. Over the course of one dinner, I must have seen ten paraded out to tables around me.

The joke on the ballers is that everything here is baller. And everything, if you squint, is kind of a steak, from the huge Center Cut King Crab Legs, which restore the crown of that crustacean after too many dissolute years spent hanging around Vegas buffets, to the Slab Salad, a classic iceberg wedge topped with ranch and Benton's lardons that somehow inspires you to attack it with some of the same bloodlust you do the deeply crusted rib eyes, strips, and porterhouses, or the 100-day-wet-aged wood-grilled hanger, which is the sneaky winning order. Shepherd, who this year also opened UB Preserv, a new evolution of Underbelly, as well as a “Mediterranean” iteration of his rotating concept, One Fifth, has a gift for deliciousness but not always for coherent editing. The conventions of a steak house seem to have focused his fertile mind. The candle on my table turned out to be a wick floating in a limpid pool of clarified smoked-brisket fat. Bread dipped into it came out tasting like a barbecue rib. I suspect so would kale.

Almost exactly 24 hours later—Night Two—I was seated at the poured-concrete, U-shaped counter of Indigo awaiting a dish called Homogenization of Mandingos. It hadn't been easy to find the restaurant, located in what looked from the road like the unoccupied half of a convenience-store strip mall in Northline, well outside The Loop. Once inside, I found a warm but spare room with a cinder-block wall painted copper-orange. Like everything else at Indigo, the room was the conceptual and physical construction of its precocious young chef, Jonny Rhodes, and his wife, Chana. Rhodes grew up a half-mile away, served time in the Marines, and then got his cooking education from a series of kitchen stints and what he calls “YouTube University.” He imagines Indigo as the first stage of an oasis in the area's food desert, that will come to include a greenhouse and micro-farm on the property as well as the adjacent grocery store. For now, he is content serving three tasting menus—Carnivore, Herbivore, and Omnivore—which function as his own sometimes impressionistic, sometimes literal history of the African diaspora. Rhodes introduces his dishes with discursive monologues of context. We had already eaten Descendants of Igbo, a tribute to the African yam made with pureed sweet potato and smoked pecan butter. Also, a dollop of sweet crabmeat lolling in a warm pool of milk and butter that bore some tangential relationship to the dress of assimilation, called Turtle Necks & Durags. Rhodes is a charming and magnetic lecturer, but also a gifted cook, with a deft grasp of how to balance high concepts with equally compelling technique and flavor. Now it was time for the Mandingos. The origin of that loaded term, Rhodes explained, was in a West African hunting-and-gathering people. Only in America, where the slaves who shared their physique were simultaneously prized and feared for their strength and power, did it become a racial epithet.

“Black men, as we know, have been hyper-sexualized as a way of maintaining that fear,” he went on. “And part of that is the idea of giant, threatening black penises.”

It occurred to me that I would never again be able to feign interest in a server's rap about “how our menu works.” Rhodes allowed himself only the smallest smile as the dish was placed before us.

On the plate was an inch-long stub of dark sausage.

Here, I thought, driving home after this second meal, was the entire whiplash experience of the year in dining: All the back-and-forth between heart and brain, pleasure and intellect, comfort and confrontation, wit and vulgarity, the desire for escape and the hunger to be challenged. Restaurants have become some of our most charged public forums—spaces fairly crackling with issues of race, gender, labor, the environment, immigration, and more—while remaining among our most private and emotional. They are places where it really wasn't all that unexpected to hear a dissertation on the uses of psychosexual paranoia in racial domination, but also where one might indulge the legitimate pleasures of spending hard-earned money on way too much perfectly cooked meat. Driving through the Houston darkness, I felt lucky anew to have the chance to love them both.