Our picks for this year’s Best New Restaurants in the Americas include a bare bones Guatemalan tostada shop, a tasting menu restaurant set at 11,500 feet above sea level in the Andes, and an eatery focusing on indigenous Costa Rican cuisine, underscoring the point that this year’s new restaurant openings have been far more diverse than in years past.
While major metropolitan areas like Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City continue to gain momentum, other destinations that have been lesser known for their cuisine are jumping into the mix. We have two restaurants from San José, Costa Rica this year, plus others from places like Ollantaytambo, San Antonio, and Tulum. Lima — and Peru in general — has seen a surge of new openings, ranging from Pia León’s stunning restaurant above the new Central to an updated regional restaurant with a progressive cocktail program in the Sacred Valley.
Sustainability is a key element to many of the restaurants we’ve found the most interesting this year, and we are not talking about those at the fine dining level. There’s now unpretentious seasonal food in São Paulo and hyper-local seafood in San Francisco, and we predict that this trend isn’t likely to change anytime soon. We are also witnessing various cuisines pop up outside of their home countries. For instance, there’s now great Nikkei in Miami, creative Mexican in San Diego, and Venezuelan fusion in Lima.
While it’s always hard, impossible really, to categorize what ranks as any year’s best in a crowded and deserving field, the below embodies New Worlder’s second attempt at such distinction. Here, in no particular order, is our list of the 20 Best New Restaurant Openings of 2018:
Possibly the most talented chef in Brazil, Alberto Landgraf, turned heads with his restaurant Epice in São Paulo, which earned a Michelin star and appeared on the Latin America 50 Best Restaurant list. Epice closed and in early February, he re-emerged in Rio de Janeiro’s Botafogo neighborhood with Oteque. Expect Landgraf’s technical precision to be applied to Brazil’s astounding array of ingredients, taken to an even higher degree than Epice. oteque.com.
Chef and culinary researcher Pablo Bonilla has been actively exploring Bribrí and other indigenous Costa Rica territories, seeking out new ingredients and ancestral culinary preparations. He had been running a casual restaurant serving gallos, the Costa Rican version of the taco, while serving tastings of indigenous preparations in the evenings. The restaurant, now with a new name, now has a full blown indigenous menu with dishes like albóndigas de maiz pujagua and smoked palm heart paté. Instagram.
The cooking of chef Joshua Skene, once limited to the tasting menu of his three Michelin star restaurant Saison, is opening up to a much wider audience with his more accessible, though no less ingenious, restaurant Angler. Set in the former Chaya Brasserie space on the Embarcadero, here Skenes is obsessed with finding the perfect local ingredients and serving them at their ideal moment, but why can’t that same philosophy be applied to a meal that’s less than $100 per person? Angler proves that it can. Anchored by a 32-foot hearth, the restaurant builds off the relationships Skenes has solidified over the years at Saison, allowing the kitchen to get daily deliveries from which they create a nightly menu. Most of the seafood lives in tanks right up until the point it is ordered, ensuring freshness. anglerrestaurants.com.
With little reason to open restaurants in Caracas for the time being, Venezuelan chefs are making waves in other parts of the Americas. Around the corner from the new location of Central, where chef/owner Juan Luis Martínez was once sous chef, along with partner José Luis Saumeo, Mérito is serving a fusion of Peruvian and Venezuelan flavors that you never realized you were missing. The minimalist, two-level space of brick and wood spins ingredients like pez diablo, yacón, and chirimoya into fantastic dishes — many cooked on a Josper grill — that could only evolve out of the current geo-political climate. meritorestaurante.com.
At El Jardín, the first restaurant by former Top Chef contestant Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins (read our interview with her here), women are a recurring theme. The lead sommelier is female and much of the restaurant’s decor incorporates fabrics sourced from a group of female textile makers in Oaxaca, Mexico. “Women,” Zepeda explains, “are the gatekeepers of our traditions.” As for food, the “homey, soulful, and creative” menu focuses on local produce plucked from El Jardin’s garden and seasonal ingredients from Mexico. eljardinrestaurantbar.com.
Crisp white walls, warm wood floors, and an eight-seat bar drenched in natural light are Chuncho’s stocks in trade, as are lunch and dinner menus highlighting fresh local ingredients prepared and served in elevated Andean style. The former will lull you into staying long after you planned. The latter will make your mouth water long after you’ve left. The cocktail program focuses on spirits, such as Caña Alta and Matacuy, produced at the nearby Destilería Andina. Another selling point: its location overlooking the Plaza de Ollantaytambo makes it an ideal spot for ending a long day exploring the Sacred Valley. Instagram page.
Situated 11,500 feet above sea level, above the Incan ruin of Moray outside of Cusco, Mil is a restaurant unlike any we have ever seen. In fact, the word restaurant limits its scope. Not only is it a lab for Malena and Virgilio Martinez’s research organization Mater Iniciativa, it serves as an experiment in communal agriculture set within and working with two indigenous communities with the help of a staff anthropologist. The massive, collaborative effort among the entire group is yielding wild results in the passing of traditional knowledge and the advancement of Andean crops. Seating only a couple of dozen guests per day, the tasting menus and pairings at this remote restaurant might rival its big brother Central in Lima. milcentro.pe.
From Christian Sierra, the man known as Koto in the kitchen and the former sous chef at Rodolfo Guzman’s Boragó – he worked there from the age of 19 – comes Sierra, a tribute to the now chef/owner’s butcher father. Meat is, naturally, the restaurant’s star throughout the laid-bake tasting menu, though foraged plants and local seafood also feature prominently. sierrarestaurante.cl.
Set in a restored, 1930’s Barrio Amón house, contemporary restaurant Silvestre is exploring Costa Rican ingredients and culinary culture like few have done. Dishes seek out seasonal produce from Costa Rica’s farms and forests, while fish are sourced from two oceans. Tables are set in a series of elegant dining rooms and a covered interior patio with a vertical garden, while their basement is home to a bar and wine cellar. restaurantesilvestre.com.
From the owners of Mercado 24, this divey storefront that used to be a shoe shop is proof that you don’t need a hundred thousand dollar investment to make great food that keeps your clientele happy. Dora has just one item on the menu: the Guatemalan tostada. Offering a handful of different toppings each day, such as octopus and solomillo (pork), the shop opens at noon and the toppings get crossed off the board as they sell out. 9 Venida 1-63, Edificio 414, Zona 4; Facebook page.
Joseph “JJ” Johnson is breathing life back into HENRY, the ground-floor restaurant within NoMad’s boutique Life Hotel. Highlighting the culinary legacy of the African diaspora with a menu that pulls from the American South, Caribbean, Asian cuisines, Johnson draws on his extensive travels from Israel to Ghana to Singapore for dishes like Bone-In Beef Short Rib with Wok Millet, Hoisin BBQ, Roti and Black Beans and AfroPot with King Crab, Prawns, Cassava, Clams, Mussels and Chinese Pork Sauce. A cocktail program spearheaded by Pam Wiznitzer is similarly international in scope and the 74-seat dining room is wrapped in leather and wooden accents. Instagram page.
Cesar Costa spent time with Alex Atala down the street at D.O.M., Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, and Christian Puglisi at Relae, so it is no surprise that his new restaurant in São Paulo, Corrutela, is serving seasonal, sustainable food. The surprise is how well it is living up to its expectations. Aside from being partly solar powered, equipped with water saving dishwasher, and having a 30 kilogram composter (in plain view), the daily menus are created in such a way that they are practically waste free. With the restaurant’s efforts in helping build a network of sustainable, organic producers, the entire city benefits. corrutela.com.br.
Inside the St. Roch Market in Miami’s Design District, Itamae is making a style of creative, Japanese-Peruvian cuisine that is sorely lacking in the United States. Like Llama Inn in New York, the Chang family is making Peruvian food that isn’t overly tied to tradition yet inspired by the country’s flavors, adapted to the best local produce. There are beautiful tiraditos, sandwiches stuffed jalea, and bowls of aji de gallina, not to mention maki rolls spiced with ají. itamaemiami.com.
While Pia León was named recently named Latin America’s best female chef, she might just be the best chef in the region, period. With Kjolle, she steps out of the shadows of Central, where she has been the executive chef for years, and ventures into her own, airy space without the limitations of an ecosystem based menu. The result is a spectacular exploration of Peruvian flavors that feels completely unique yet complementary to Central downstairs. kjolle.com.
Also our restaurant of the year for 2018, Jorge León and his family’s rustic eatery on the outskirts of Oaxaca is putting out some of the best food in a region of extraordinary cuisine. Formerly in charge of the masa and moles at Pujol, Alfonsina is anchored by what might be the world’s most perfect masa, which they use to make things like tlayudas, molotes, tamales, and memelas on a traditional comal with the precision of a fine dining restaurant.
There were questions about whether Noma’s influence would linger in Tulum after the pop-up left. With ARCA, it seems, the answer is a big yes. California-born chef Jose Luis Hinostroza, who was part of Noma Mexico’s R&D team, decided to stick around the Yucatán, becoming a partner at ARCA, helping to turn this remote jungle outpost — along with several other new spots — into one of Mexico’s premier culinary destinations. Utilizing open fire cooking, the restaurant is inspired by local traditions and produce, leading to creations like pulque sourdough bread, citrus-less ceviche, and amaranth tempura battered soft shell crab. arcatulum.com.
Restaurants in Ecuador’s capital continue to test the limits of the country’s immense biodiversity. Nuema, which recently reopened in a more formal space at the Illa Experience Hotel in Quito’s center after several years in another location, has just seven tables, allowing chef Alejandro Chamorro and his wife, Piedad Salazar, to focus on showcasing the very best Ecuadorian ingredients. Credit to the pair for not serving what Quito’s diners expect, but pushing them to try something different, such as lesser known fish from environmentally responsible fishermen and dishes that combine flavors like shrimp, mashua and fermented coconut. Instagram page.
In a no-frills space on San Antonio’s south side, Carnitas Lonja closed a few months after opening over a code dispute, but roared back in August. With made-to-order corn tortillas and pork that doesn’t hold back on the fat, these just might be the best carnitas in the United States. Michoacán-born Alex Paredes sells out of the $3 carnitas tacos daily by the early afternoon, though their menudo and birria are also worthy of the hype. Facebook page.
The first Mexico City restaurant by talented chef Gabriela Ruíz explores the tropical flavors (cacao, yaca, shellfish) of her native Tabasco, where she owns Gourmet MX. In the restaurant’s lofty space in Lomas Virreyes, she imaginatively recreates beautiful new plates like canelones filled with cochinita pibil and tostadas de mentiras, which are actually made of coconut though some would swear they’re made from crab meat. carmelaysal.mx.
Even with Puerto Rico rebuilding after Hurricane Maria caused mass destruction to the island, Vianda still opened from vets of New York’s Blue Hill and the Modern, Francis Guzmán and Amelia Dill. A year into construction at the base of a Santurce office building when the hurricane hit, there was no turning back. Even after a considerable amount of farmland was wiped out by Mother Nature, the restaurant – with it’s playful Puerto Rican cuisine inspired by the island’s ingredients – is helping support small farmers at a time when they need the most help. viandapr.com.
Header image of Kjolle in Lima, Peru. Photo credit: Nicholas Gill.