As a nation, we know the culinary greatness and variety we have in our best gastronomic cities: Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Chicago. I'm not convinced, though, that enough of America grasps the glory of Houston, the city that easily rounds out the country's top five food destinations. If the first thing people associate with Houston is urban sprawl — well, its sheer expanse makes for that many more magnificent dining possibilities. The unchecked growth of our fourth-largest city, with 2.3 million people filling its 655 square miles (not including the gigantic, nine-county metropolitan area it anchors), has sired one of America's most eclectic, energized, and triumphant restaurant landscapes.
In my near-constant travels, no city more constantly astounds me on every visit than Houston. Its extraordinary breadth (more than 10,000 restaurants) includes a remarkable blend of cultures, though the crossroads geography lays the culinary foundation. Here, bayou-laced Cajun country abuts the vast Southwest. Houstonians appreciate a righteous bowl of gumbo and beignets plucked fresh from the fryer. This is Texas, proudly, so of course barbecue, steak, and Tex-Mex are beloved. The standout places that serve these foods transcend cliché; their mesquite-grilled ribeyes and smoked brisket and velvety cheese enchiladas ground the dining scene in a rich sense of place.
But those dishes represent only a fraction of what makes Houston such an extraordinary place to eat. Its vast array of global flavors is seemingly endless — a reflection of its citizenry. A study by Rice University in 2013 found Houston's population to be the most racially diverse in America, with no one ethnicity dominating. It would take a lifetime to eat your way through Houston's dozens of neighborhoods, immersing yourself in the spectrums of Latino and Asian restaurants, places that may specialize in one country's region or a celebrated dish — or perhaps a beloved fusion like the Viet-Cajun crawfish boil, thrumming with garlic and butter and spices, that became popular as the Vietnamese community (like that of nearby Louisiana) took root in the 1970s.
I've been visiting Houston regularly since 2007, the year I started worked as a dining critic at the Dallas Morning News and found myself curious about the difference between the rival metropolises. Right away, I was astounded by Houston's culinary scope, and even after I left Texas, I kept coming back as its restaurants became more focused, more adventurous, more novel. The city supported them, and so did the country: True originals like vegetable-forward Oxheart and Underbelly, which looks to the city's immigrant communities as inspiration for its worldly menu, began bringing in national acclaim.
The mix of enduring benchmark restaurants and the blitz of newcomers means it has never been a better time to eat in Houston.
Houston's acceleration toward excellence hasn't slowed. The mix of enduring benchmark restaurants (which have deserved more national praise all along) and the blitz of newcomers means it has never been a more delicious time to eat there.
Regard this list, then, as a snapshot of the city's virtuosity. It highlights — in no particular order — exemplary dishes that together illuminate the splendor of Houston dining. (For fun, compare my picks to the restaurants name-checked on Eater Houston's 38 list). It culls from my years of eating and drinking through the city, but especially reflects a recent week I spent immersed in its pleasures. I revisited some old favorites (they didn't always hold up; the usually-wonderful Indian cafe Pondicheri disappointed with sodden dosas and haphazardly spiced curries) and experienced some of the latest standouts. Each day, I eased my car onto one of the dozen-plus freeways that coil around the city like spaghetti strands. I drove ten or twenty or thirty minutes from Houston's downtown and I feasted on the city's miraculous mosaic of food. I savored the sprawl. Everyone should.
1. Beef tamale at Irma's Original
At this downtown Tex-Mex institution, a hangout for politicos since it opened in 1989, Irma Galvan and her family recite the day's menu of a dozen or so items to their customers, rather than presenting a document. (For first timers who don't like surprises, the restaurant's website offers a sample menu with prices.) The daily options always include unusually light-handed, fresh-tasting takes on staples like enchiladas, tacos, and chiles rellenos. Irma's is a ritual stop for me in Houston; I always eat something that I daydream about between visits — particularly a lush beef tamale, the meat inside left in ropy hunks, served in a scarlet pool of ancho chile sauce that tastes bright as a cloudless Texas sky in spring. 22 North Chenevert Street, Houston, (713) 588-9891, irmasoriginal.com
2. Kitchen Special crawfish at Cajun Kitchen
Houston has the country's third largest Vietnamese-American community; Vietnamese-Cajun seafood boils are one of the wonders to emerge out of the modern Houston kitchen in the last 15 years. The bombastically seasoned "kitchen special" version at this Asiatown stalwart stands out from the crowd: The crawfish — in season usually from January to July — loll in a spicy bath of butter, garlic, lemongrass, onion, and sliced lemon and lime. By the end, you'll want to drink the liquid at the bottom of the metal bowl. 6938 South Wilcrest Drive, Houston, (281) 495-8881, cajunkitchenhouston.com
3. Weekend barbacoa at Gerardo's
Legendary Texas food writer Robb Walsh introduced me to this Mexican meat market and restaurant, where the crowds descend for breakfast and lunch on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. That's when owner Jose Luis Lopez and his family steam cabezas (cow heads) in massive kettles, for twelve hours, over chile broth. The result is supple, faintly gamey barbacoa, the laborious head-meat specialty that's becoming increasingly rare in restaurant settings. The Lopezes sell the different delicacies from the cabezas — cheek, tongue, sweetbreads — by the pound. Try some of each in tacos: If you eat in, the staff will send out your barbacoa on a tray with corn or flour tortillas, onions, cilantro, tiny green pequin chiles, and an array of salsas. 609 Patton Street, Houston, (713) 699-0820
4. Greens and cheese pie at Helen Greek Food & Wine
Sommelier Evan Turner, who spent part of his childhood in Greece, opened his first restaurant last summer in a deep, narrow room in pedestrian-friendly Rice Village. It's a shining example of the progressive spirit in Houston's dining scene: He assembled bang-on talent for the kitchen and championed an underrepresented cuisine in the city, and the community instantly embraced it. The greens and cheese pie makes a resounding first impression. Its phyllo exterior crackles audibly, giving way to a near-molten interior of feta, kefalotyri, and mizithra cheeses, salty and sharp but not overwhelming, with a leafy mix that includes spinach and collards. Turner's lighthearted tasting notes help make his all-Greek wine list accessible; an Assyrtiko from Santorini cuts right through the richness of the pie. 2429 Rice Boulevard, Houston, (832) 831-7133, helengreekfoodandwine.com
5. Pho with bone marrow at Pho Binh by Night
Beef bones are typically among the primary ingredients for creating the meaty, spice-fragrant broth that defines Vietnamese pho. So why not serve a version that includes shimmery globs of bone marrow to stir into the noodle soup? That's the brilliant stroke at Pho Binh by Night, a seven-location local chain. (I went to one anchoring a strip mall on Bellaire Boulevard in the Alief neighborhood.) Order typical beef options for the soup — rare sliced steak, brisket, meatballs — and then a side of the marrow, which comes out bobbing in beef stock in a separate bowl. Added to the soup judiciously, along with the balancing additions of lime, fresh herbs, sprouts, and a jolt of Sriracha, it results in pho taken to magnificent extremes. 12148 Bellaire Boulevard, Houston, (832) 351-2464, phobinh.com/by-night
6. Lechon at Hugo's
Hugo Ortega, a Mexico City native, composes plates that reflect his personal angle on the cuisines of his birth country, borrowing cooking techniques and dishes from all over rather than adhering to any one regional tradition. At Hugo's, his flagship restaurant, meat is a must. (For Mexican seafood go to Caracol, one of the other restaurant Ortega owns with wife Tracy Vaught.) Nothing better kicks off a meal than the starter of lechon — achiote-braised suckling pig nestled in a banana leaf and topped with crackings. It comes with habanero salsa that stings the lips and small corn tortillas that smell of earth and warmth. 1600 Westheimer Road, Houston, (713) 524-7744, hugosrestaurant.net
7. Fried chicken at Barbecue Inn
As the restaurant's name might imply, beef brisket and ribs do appear on the menu here, but the true prize at this long-timer — in business since 1941 — is the bronzed bird. Rippling, precisely salted crust seals in scorching juices. "Be careful now," said my server. "We didn't just pull that out of the cooler." In true old-school form, the chicken comes with a house salad built from iceberg lettuce, and fries on the side. Fried chicken is my absolute favorite food — I seek it out everywhere — and Barbecue Inn consistently turns out a version that ranks among the finest in the country. 116 West Crosstimbers Road, Houston, (713) 695-8112, thebarbecueinn.com
8. Polo (pilaf with lamb shank) at Uyghur Bistro
One of the newest additions to the pastiche of regional Chinese restaurants in Houston's Asiatown — a stretch of more than six miles along Bellaire Boulevard — Uyghur Bistro specializes in the cuisine of the Muslim communities of China's northwestern Xinjiang province. The polo clearly resembles similar rice presentations in Indian and Persian cuisines, a nod to the region's position on the Silk Road. A mound of rice arrives glossy with meat stock and, studded with cumin and carrots; the lamb shank on top has meat that falls off the bone with the brush of a fork. Order some lightly sweet homemade yogurt on the side for cooling contrast. 9888 Bellaire Boulevard, Houston, (832) 795-9259, uyghurbistro.com
9. Oxtails and collard greens at Harold's in the Heights
Chef Antoine Ware, who hails from New Orleans, calls forth his home state in dishes like pasta with crabmeat and mirliton, the pear-shaped squash also known as chayote. But he shows even more grace in dishes that express the broader South. Every textural element of his braised oxtail and collards, served with a black-eyed pea ragout, tastes deeply considered: the meat braised to sinuous softness, the collards satiny, the legumes dissolving on the tongue. Mirroring the way the ingredients seamlessly interacts, the dish — and Ware's skills — show off a poise between sophistication and hominess that melds effortlessly into Houston's unique culinary melting pot. 350 West 19th Street, Houston, (713) 360-6204, haroldsheights.com
10. Chicken-fried steak at Killen's Steakhouse
Killen's is one of the Texas's superlative chophouses, offering both wet- and dry-aged steaks from several producers around the county, so diners have manifold options in style and price. You should absolutely order a bone-in ribeye or New York strip here, but a chicken-friend steak should also land on your table. CFS is a cornerstone of Texan comfort food, and this upscale rendering nails every aspect of the dish. The kitchen pounds sirloin thin, batters and fries the meat until its coating is golden and crisp, covers it with peppery white gravy, and serves it with sides of mashed potatoes and haricots verts. Lone Star heaven. 6425 West Broadway Street, Pearland, (281) 485-0844, killenssteakhouse.com
11. Five meat platter at Killen's Barbecue
Yes, a dish from Ronnie Killen's other Pearland restaurant (both about half an hour's drive from downtown Houston) also deserves a place on this list. A swift-moving line always swerves out the door at Killen's Barbecue; the wait will stoke your appetite. Once you reach the counter, order a plate that includes up to six meats, to sample the spectrum of smoked-kissed options: exquisitely rendered brisket, crusty short rib, gossamer pulled pork, peppery pork ribs, and plump sausage concealing mustard seeds for pop and zing. Potato salad and mac and cheese on the side, thank you kindly. With his wizardly technique and impressive consistency, Killen may one day soon dethrone Austin's Aaron Franklin as the king of Texas barbecue. 3613 East Broadway St, Pearland, (281) 485-2272, killensbarbecue.com
12. Stuffed sticky rice with conger eel at Foreign Correspondents
Treadsack is Houston's restaurant group of the moment, opening businesses rapid-fire in the last year, all of which have turned out to be overachievers, including Hunky Dory for modern Brit fare and Bernadine's for Louisiana-influenced Gulf seafood. Foreign Correspondents, the group's Thai restaurant in the Houston Heights neighborhood, may be the best of the bunch. Chef PJ Stoops lived in northern Thailand for several years; he's also one of Houston's most vocal advocates for serving bycatch Gulf seafood once considered "trash fish." His masteries merge spectacularly in khao bai — indigo-colored sticky rice bathed in coconut milk and stuffed with local conger eel (its texture a cross between crab and snapper), wrapped in a banana leaf and then grilled. The result is a collage of haunting sweet flavors, earthy and oceanic and tropical. 4721 North Main Street, Houston, (713) 864-8424, treadsack.com/foreigncorrespondents
13. Skirt steak fajitas at The Original Ninfa's on Navigation
This isn't that chain restaurant bastardization of fajitas that zooms out of the kitchen on a platter roiling acrid smoke, but Maria Ninfa Laurenzo, known as Mama Ninfa, helped popularize the preparation when she opened this restaurant in 1973, in front of the family tortilla factory. Her signature dish then was a variation on tacos al carbon — skirt steak served on a hot comal with caramelized onions and a stack of fresh flour tortillas. The restaurant, and Laurenzo's fajitas, became a sensation. Today the menu strays into modern whimsies like crab cake with roasted jalapeño sauce, but those skirt steak fajitas — tender-chewy, smoky from the grill, wonderful wrapped in pliant tortillas that are made by hand in plain view near the restaurant's entrance — remain the incontestable draw. 2704 Navigation Boulevard, Houston, (713) 228-1175, ninfas.com
14. Campechana extra at Goode Company Seafood
Jim Goode, who died earlier this year at 71, founded restaurants in the seventies and eighties that celebrated iconic Texas foods: barbecue, tacos, Gulf seafood. In the words of Houston Chronicle's indomitable restaurant critic Alison Cook, Goode "set the table for the current generation of Houston chefs who splice our culinary DNA with such deft abandon." His most famous dish, deservedly, is his take on the Mexican seafood cocktail, a mixture of crab and shrimp doused in a saucy, chile-spiked combination of pico de gallo, avocado, ketchup, green olives, and lime juice. Few dishes more effectively revive the senses in Houston's summer swelter. 2621 Westpark Drive, Houston, (713) 523-7154, goodecompany.com
15. Chingo Bling combo plate at El Real
El Real, housed in a refurbished 1930s movie theatre in the restaurant-packed Montrose area, takes a retro-modern approach to classic Tex-Mex, drawing on vintage recipes of old-fashioned dishes like the puffy tacos perfected in San Antonio, or enchiladas filled with orangey, gooey cheese and topped with chile con carne. I'm partial to the combo plate named in tribute to the Houston hip-hop artist Chingo Bling: It includes a delicately battered smoked chicken chile relleno, a chicken enchilada smothered in salsa verde, and a plush pork tamale. I ask for one of those glorious puffy tacos, filled with ground beef, on the side to round out the spread. 1201 Westheimer Road, Houston, (713) 524-1201, elrealtexmex.com
16. Sweet potato with Pata Cabra and chorizo at the Pass
Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan operate two restaurants in one. The left side of the building houses casual, Italian-leaning Provisions. Head right and a staffer will push open an imposing black wall-cum-door that leads to the Pass, Houston's toniest dining room, a stark expanse of black banquettes and white walls with a clear view of a laboratory-like kitchen. Siegel-Garder and Gallivan have ascended to the national pantheon of fine-dining destinations with this kitchen's modernist creations, that bend notions of familiar foods but still come off as fun and deeply gratifying to eat. The knockout from their current nine-course tasting menu is a sweet potato composition starring fluffy bread, its texture derived in part by juicing the raw vegetable and separating out the starch. It comes alongside a crock of foamed Pata Cabra, a washed-rind goat cheese from Spain, hiding diced chorizo and topped with sweet potato chips for crunch. The dish was meant to bring to mind the reassuring pleasure of queso fundido con chorizo, and as I swiped the last bit of goodness from the dish I thought: mission accomplished. 807 Taft Street, Houston, (713) 628-9020, passandprovisions.com
17. Korean braised goat and dumplings at Underbelly
Chris Shepherd's constant curiosity about Houston and its diverse cultures means his menu evolves daily. But in discussing the dishes that define this city, the conversation must include Shepherd's adored goat and dumplings, the one item always available on the ever-changing lineup. Boneless braised goat meat and seared Korean rice cakes meet in gochujang (Korean red pepper paste) simmered with dashes of butter and beer. It hearkens to Korean goat stew in spirit, Southern chicken and dumplings in name, and the Texas predilection for spice in seasoning, but it really is Shepherd's own self-assured marvel. 1100 Westheimer Road, Houston, (713) 528-9800, underbellyhouston.com
18. Crystal dumplings (but really, whatever they serve you) at Oxheart
Oxheart is the sole Houston restaurant on Eater's 2016 list of the 38 essential restaurants in America, so of course it merits inclusion here. What makes the place so extraordinary? Chef and co-owner Justin Yu looks to the harvest to evoke a sense of place, and he pulls it off brilliantly. He serves two six-course tasting menu options, one vegetarian and one omnivorous, but both hone in on the local, seasonal bounty of Texas and reference a range of cuisines in the eclectic run of flavors. Sure, you can look out for something specific like Yu's translucent crystal dumplings (currently on both menus), filled with greens and served in a broth of kohlrabi and tea — but really, just make a reservation and give yourself over to dinner in the casual, 31-seat room. You'll leave nourished in body and soul, in a way you could only be sated in Houston. 1302 Nance Street, Houston, (832) 830-8592, oxhearthouston.com