The Best New Restaurants of 2016 : New Worlder

Across the globe, during any given year, new restaurant openings happen with alarming frequency. With so much emphasis being placed on culinary tourism, it’s often difficult to distinguish one hot spot from the next, keep track of favorites that have closed, or stay current on both tasting menus and franchising chefs embarking on new projects. The Americas, rife with culinary talent, was no exception.

2016’s many openings throughout the Americas had some recurring themes. Casual was a buzzword, as fast casual spots such as Sushi Pop and La Guerrerense, and food trucks like Lupe!, upped the game, placing a premium on ingredient and execution. Laid back restaurants, like A Casa do Porco, found their way onto prestigious global lists by offering both a la carte and tasting menu options. Once untouchable, now up-and-coming destinations like Bolivia, Panama, and Colombia continued to evolve with new fine dining options, and as expected, Lima continued its upward trajectory as “the” dining destination of the Latin America. Though it’s always hard to categorize what ranks as any year’s best in a crowded and deserving field, the below embodies New Worlder’s first attempt at such distinction. Here is our list of the 15 Best New Restaurant Openings of 2016.

Panga: Playa Venao, Panama
After stints as a private chef for the Prince of Liechtenstein and helping return the Casco Viejo restaurant Manolo Caracol to relevance, Guatemalan born chef Andrés Morataya relocated on the remote yet rapidly developing Pacific beach of Playa Venao, near Pedasí on the Azuero peninsula, to open Panga. While Morataya has countless challenges in running a restaurant in such a raw setting, he has already managed to create a small network that includes a cheesemaker, oyster farm, artisanal fishermen, and ranchers, not to mention he’s foraging for underutilized native products like moringa and makes his own sea salt. The restaurant is a testament of how much potential there is in the cuisine of Panama, and that the movement isn’t limited to just Panama City.

A Casa do Porco: São Paulo, Brazil
Translating to “House of the Pig” in Portuguese, this casual Brazilian restaurant entered this year’s Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurant list at #24. Not bad for a year-old debut. Serving only 100% Brazilian pork products, from pork sushi to blood sausage, pork stews to grilled meat, cracklings to belly to ham, this spot is butcher-cum-chef Jefferson Rueda’s homage to swine. And while the slow-roasted pork sandwich is a local favorite, equally popular is the chef’s nose to tail tasting menu entitled De Tudo um Porco, which translates to “a little bit of everything” and sells out each month. Read more about Rueda’s success story here.

Mario Pagan: San Juan, Puerto Rico
Known for redefining San Juan’s dining scene for decades, chef Mario Pagan’s name is now synonymous with modern Puerto Rican cuisine at his new, elegant eponymous offering. After closing his lauded Laurel at the Museo de Arte Puerto Rico, Pagan put his efforts into this current Condado masterpiece, which opened in the spring. Expect some of the chef’s signatures, such as morcilla pegao, a delightfully crispy marriage of blood sausage and rice, along with new global/tropical expressions such as hoisin duck breast with a sweet potato coconut stew, spinach and lingonberries. Additional reporting by Kathleen Squires.

1087 Bistro: Lima, Peru
It’s been awhile since a restaurant in Lima has opened with big ideas, so to see the 33-year-old chef Palmiro Ocampo – who was given the herculean task of organizing a piece of 2016’s Mistura festival – talk about food waste, and take research expeditions into Peru’s interior ­is refreshing in a city that doesn’t always realize how much power it has. The restaurant is youthful and imperfect, though has enormous potential.

Barra Chalaca: Lima, Peru
The team of Gastón Acurio and Pepe Carpena have another hit on their hands with Barra Chalaca, which might be the simplest restaurant they have ever created. The small eatery brings a stylish yet accessible version of the food of Callao to the glass towers of San Isidro. Callao’s contribution to Lima’s cuisine has long been overlooked, though dishes like pan con chimbombohueveras al jugo en salsa escabeche, and an enormous, soulful tallarines a la huancaina are going to help spur a new interest in the singular recipes of the gritty port town.

Llama Inn: Brooklyn, NY
Didn’t make it to Lima this year? That’s okay, Eleven Madison Park alum Erik Ramirez helms this buzzing, breezy spot under the BQE in Williamsburg, Brooklyn that has been channeling authentic Peruvian flavors since the day it opened. The menu features antichuchos of pork belly and beef heart, a selection of tiraditos and ceviches, and some great large format dishes including a killer lomo saltado (smothered in French fries and elevated by the side of addictive, whisper-thin scallion pancakes), while the bar program, overseen by beverage rock star Lynnette Marrero, gives Peruvian pisco cocktails, like the on-draft Llama Del Rey, both creative and thoughtful spotlight.

Proper: Buenos Aires, Argentina
There’s practically no division between the open kitchen and dining room at Proper, the newest restaurant sensation to sweep Palermo off its feet. Leo Lanussol and Augusto Mayer, a young cook and pastry chef duo, left working with celeb chef Narda Lepes to open their own venture set inside an ex-mechanic shop. The seasonal produce-focused menu of small shared plates changes daily, but expect modern Argentine flavors with a Mediterranean twist, cooked entirely in a wood burning oven. Tip: To enjoy Proper to its fullest, bring a group of people, take over the communal table, and order one of everything on the menu – just make sure to save room for the house specialty dessert, dulce de leche flan. Additional reporting by Allie Lazar.

Ali Pacha: La Paz, Bolivia
Ali Pacha, which means “the universe of plants” in Aymara is the last restaurant you would ever expect to find in an old building in La Paz, Bolivia’s historic center. Aside of it serving 3, 5, and 7 course menus and having a recycled DIY vibe that would be more fitting in upscale neighborhoods in the south like Calacota, the restaurant is 100 percent vegan. Chef Sebastián Quiroga, who graduated from Le Cordon Bleu in London and worked at Gustu, is doing vegan food better than anyone else in South America right now. They’re not just limiting themselves to quinoa either, though when they use the Andean seed it gets turned into a milk that becomes a mozzarella-like cheese. 

Raices: Pichileimu, Chile
Tiny hamlets of Chile’s central coast like Pichilemu, which most only know as a surf spot, are not only near some of the country’s most interesting vineyards, but are also full of gastronomic potential. Working out of their test kitchen until their 14-seat restaurant opens in 2017, Raíces, a gastrolab and restaurant from chef Gustavo Moreno, is serving five course menus four days a week using only products from the area, which include foraged wild radishes and beach plants like salicornia, lots of seaweed, lamb, shellfish, and wild fruits that they turn into kombucha. Additionally, they’re pairing is mostly with natural wines, something Chile restaurants regularly tend to overlook.

Criollo: Oaxaca, Mexico 
Oaxacan-born chef Luis Arellano, an integral part of Enrique Olvera’s team who has been concentrating on Oaxaca’s endemic ingredients since leaving Pujol, is the man behind the unfussy, somewhat clandestine Criollo. Having garnered raves from Mexico’s in-the-know culinary community for the better part of the last six months, Criollo is set in a rustic, intimate courtyard, and the day’s dishes are modern, beautiful plays on classic Oaxacan flavors and technique, enhanced by mezcal, music, and a casual, comfortable vibe. The exquisite presentations elevate the Oaxacan canon to exciting new heights, giving Casa Oaxaca and other local favorites a serious run for their money.

Villanos en Bermudas: Bogota, Colombia
While Bogota’s restaurant scene is flourishing, on the high end it lacks creativity. It took two non-Colombian chefs with experience in some of the world’s best restaurants, Argentina’s Nicolás Lopez and Mexico’s Sergio Meza, to change that. Their three-level funhouse in Chapinero Alto, divided between a fine dining restaurant with always changing tasting menus and gastropub with original cocktails and a la carte, has its finger on the pulse of where the city’s culinary movement is going. They’re champions of small producers and are finding uniquely Colombian ingredients that have long been overlooked by many chefs in Bogota. Prediction: Highest New Entry Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants 2017.

Olmsted: Brooklyn, New York
Olmstead in Prospect Heights is a cross between a backyard farm and a neighborhood restaurant and it’s redefining what farm to table can be in an urban environment. They’re not just growing microgreens in the back, where you can have drinks and roast marshmallows, but composting vegetable scraps broken down by black soldier fly larvae that are then fed to crayfish. As you would expect, chef Greg Baxtrom – who’s restaurant cred includes Atera, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and Norway’s Lysverket – pays close attention to the seasons for his eclectic, accessible dishes that rotate often. You might find a kale crab rangoon one month, or a carrot crepe with little neck clams the next.

Lupe!: Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico
Though Chef Javier Plascencia has an empire that straddles a border and includes fine dining (Misión 19, Tijuana), vineyard dining (Finca Altozano, Valle de Guadalupe) and city dining (Bracero, San Diego), his latest project, which nails fast casual dining, could be his most fun yet. Lupe!, set on the Finca Altozano lot, is a lonche, or snack, truck that operates out of an Airstream. But these are no ordinary snacks. Serving a wide variety of tortas, made on pillow-soft telera bread, and using only area produce and meats such as beef, lamb, pork (smoked onsite), this new spot is a haven for those who want a killer Valle meal without the hassle or price of some of the region’s other options. Paired with excellent local craft brews, Mexican wines, and aguas frescas, Lupe! has expansion written all over it.

Amaya: Mexico City, Mexico
Sit down with Baja pioneer Jair Téllez and he will inevitably bend your ear on natural, biodynamic wine. His Valle de Guadalupe spot, Laja, and perennial DF haunt, Merotoro, are established destinations for the Mexican food set, but with Amaya, in the newly minted culinary barrio of Juarez, he turns his emphasis toward wine from (mostly) Latin American producers. Téllez’ simple dishes and elegant cooking are on display here – grilled seafood, shellfish stews, a lush beef tartare, freshly baked bread – and added to the warmth of the bi-level space that begs patrons to sip some wine and stay a while, he has another winner on his hands.

SingleThread: Sonoma, California
SingleThread is a restaurant and inn located in downtown Healdsburg that was four years in the making. Its farm is set on five-acres in the Russian River Valley, approximately four miles away. Kyle Connaughton, who has worked with Michel Bras in Tokyo and was the head of R&D at the Fat Duck in the UK, serves 11-course Japanese inflected menus utilize the farm’s greenhouse, fields, chicken coops, heirloom fruit orchard, olive trees, bee hives, and cattle, not to mention their Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, and Chardonnay vines.

WORTHY MENTIONS

Though the above list highlights the debuts that we found the most rewarding, there are additional standouts that deserve both mention and accolades.

The fast casual craze is on fire and additional favorites include Baja’s Sabina Bandera who turned her popular tostada stand La Guerrerense into an official storefront; Chori, the choripán gastro-pub in Buenos Aires’ Palermo neighborhood from the La Carnicería crew; Sushi Pop, Mitsuharu Tsumura’s casual complement to his acclaimed Maido in Lima, Peru; and Los Mariscos, the seafood-driven offshoot of Chelsea Market’s successful Los Tacos No. 1 in New York City.

Thoughtful, neighborhood restaurants have begun to share spotlight with big occasion tasting menu temples. On the Lower East Side of New York City it’s at Lalo, where Chef Gerardo Gonzalez’s awaited solo debut focuses on the Mexican-Mediterranean styling of Southern California cuisine with playful bites such as Shishitos en Nogada and Pan con Tomatillo. In Culver City, California, it’s happening at Destroyer, where talented chef Jordan Kahn is serving breakfast and lunch at a 16-seat counter-service joint enhanced by foraged ingredients.

We enjoyed seeing our favorite cuisines popping up in unlikely destinations including the Baja influenced Leña Brava as an addition to Rick Bayless’ growing Mexican empire in Chicago and Casita Andina, a Peruvian picantería from Martin Morales in London. French Bistros with local touches are popping up everywhere, from Rafael Osterling’s Félix Brasserie in Lima’s financial district to Alfonso de la Espriella’s Casa Escondida in a colonial house in Panama City. Then there’s Mo Café + Bistro in Lima’s artsy Barranco neighborhood, an all day café that’s serving some of the city’s vegetable driven dishes on their very accessible six-course tasting menus.

Even remote destinations that once lacked culinary scenes are buzzing. In La Paz, Bolivia, inside the hip Atix Hotel, the restaurant Ona brings together talent with experience in the region’s top restaurants for a contemporary Bolivian dining experience, while in the Brazilian Amazon town of Manaus, Banzeiro chef Felipe Schaedler has added a more casual grill, Moquem do Banzeiro, to his portfolio.