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Experts Share the Biggest Dining Surprises of 2013

As is the tradition at Eater, our closeout of the year is a survey of friends and food writers. This year, we asked the group eight questions, from Meal of the Year to Top Headline Predictions for 2014. We'll be posting their answers each day until we ring in the new year. Responses are related in no particular order; all are cut, pasted and unedited herein. Readers, please add your survey answers in the comments.

8574056432_77d4f024f8.jpg[Photo: Gary Wise/Flickr]

Q: What was the biggest dining surprise of 2013?

Alison Cook, restaurant critic at the Houston Chronicle: How generally conservative the notable openings were compared to last year.

Greg Morago, food editor at the Houston Chronicle: Two big hits in the same building: Osteria Mazzantini and Caracol in the BBVA Compass building.

Kaitlin Steinberg, restaurant critic at Houston Press: How obsessed people have become with ramen. Authentic ramen wasn't a thing in St. Louis, where I moved here from, but anything anyone writes about ramen is huge news. I like ramen, but I'm kind of sick of hearing about it.

Taylor Byrne-Dodge, executive associate publisher at My Table Magazine: For me, I was surprised by Goro & Gun. Ramen politics aside, I love what they are doing with the rest of the menu, and Alex's cocktails make me a happy lady.

Syd Kearney, reporter at the Houston Chronicle: That I kinda like brussel sprouts (thank you, Goro & Gun).

Robb Walsh, food editor at Houstonia: Nara--Korean/Japanese on a level I never imagined.

Teresa Byrne-Dodge, editor & publisher at My Table Magazine: I have been surprised by the closure of several Schiller-Del Grande Restaurants, including Ava Kitchen in mid 2012, Alto in late 2012 and Taco Milagro in May of this year. It's not like that restaurant group to over-reach or not do their homework.

Mai Pham, Forbes Travel Guide correspondent and freelance writer: The quality of the food coming from the students working at Kris Bistro.

Amber Ambrose, former Eater Houston editor & current Zagat Houston writer: I tried the goat brain masala at Indika for the first time and thought it was very good.

Katharine Shilcutt, features editor at Houstonia Magazine: Chef Austin Simmons's tasting menu at Hubbell & Hudson Bistro. Elegant, intricate without being fussy, mature but playful. In Houston, he'd be the talk of the town. In The Woodlands, he's just this amazing anomaly whose food is very much worth the drive.

Misha Govshteyn, food enthusiast: There were three. [1] Mexico City is an amazing eating destination and much closer to Houston than most major US cities worth traveling to for food. [2] The pivot of Goro & Gun from an ambitious ramen shop to a bar restaurant was unexpected. The food at the latest incarnation of Goro & Gun is good, but it doesn't make losing a place that obsesses about noodles & broth any less disappointing (even if this mythical ramen shop really fully materialized). [2] La Balance was surprisingly good. Maybe the best French restaurant in Houston for a while. Jose Hernandez leaving his own restaurant so quickly was equally unexpected.

Nick Esquer, editor at Houston Modern Luxury: Lowbrow's Sriracha Philly Cheese Steak.

Dutch Small, freelance writer at PaperCity: Chef Matt Marcus with Lowbrow reminded me that simple, comfortable food can be exciting. The menu is familiar but I find its charm to be seductive. I've spent the last many years following the molecular gastronomy movement and have been entranced by exotic, modern preparations and re-interpretations of classic dishes so Chef Marcus' food is disarming because it is straight forward and easy but freaking great at the same time. The guy is a real talent.

Eric Sandler, former Eater Houston editor & current CultureMap staff writer: Justin Vann's decision to leave Oxheart and launch PSA Wines. It's worked out great for everyone involved, but I didn't see that coming at all.

cucharaeoy.jpg[Photo: Gary Wise/Flickr]
Phaedra Cook, My Table Magazine contributor: That those pork tamales at The Pastry War would be so darn addictive. Also, I didn't expect to enjoy Cuchara as much as I did. I went there for the first time this year and they had some amazing salsas and sauces.

Shanna Jones & Felice Simmons Sloan, bloggers at Urban Swank: The Burger Guys closing not one, but both of their restaurants in Houston. The Duck Fat Fries and Salted Caramel shake will be missed.

Katherine Whaley, KHOU anchor & reporter: ...That a burger from Texas A&M became one of my favorite burgers in Houston. Grub Burger Bar --a College Station import— won me over with their "Lockart Legend" burger, served at the new CityCentre location. Aggies are so hot right now, so why not embrace an Aggie burger, too?

Lily Jang, KHOU anchor & reporter: D&T Drive-Inn.

Farrah Akhtar, marketing director at Yelp: The closing of Hawthorne. I absolutely loved that restaurant – amazing food, wine list, cocktails, ambiance, service and location – and I was sad to see it go. I didn't even get a chance to say 'goodbye.'

Jodie Eisenhardt, freelance writer: The resurgence of downtown dining and bars - Goro & Gun, Batanga, Captain Foxheart's, The Pastry War, OKRA, etc.

Brooke Viggiano, contirbutor at Houston Press: Brooklyn Athletic Club was a really pleasant surprise. I really didn't know what to expect, but it wasn't delicate sweet potato gnocchi and porkobuco.