The time has come: We’re messing with Texas. Eater’s “Regional 38” series previously named the vital dining destinations across three fertile swaths of America: the South, New England, and the Great Lakes region of the Midwest. The project builds on our city sites’ 38 lists and our annual guide to the essential restaurants in America. But Texas is a state so immense, so full of mythology and ambition, and so populated with such compelling and culturally specific dining options, that it stands plainly as a region unto itself.
I lived in Dallas a decade ago and converted then to a disciple of Lone Star foodways; since becoming Eater’s national critic four years ago, I’ve made a point of returning to the state for several weeks each year. But I recently dedicated an entire month to wandering and devouring, and the standouts among my scores of meals made it obvious that eating in Texas has never been more exceptional. (For more on that, read my case for Texas’s culinary superstardom.) Sure, this collection includes singular steakhouses, barbecue standard-bearers, Tex-Mex strongholds, and cafes serving outstanding burgers, breakfast tacos, and kolaches: the foods that make Texas defy trendiness.
But many of the state’s defining restaurants also reflect the rich multiculturalism of its metropolises. New staples now include Vietnamese-Cajun crawfish boils, duck breast over mole coloradito, Italian bread dumplings with braised mustard greens, and Indian thalis (trays) filled with dishes like vinegar-tinged Goa pork and turmeric soup.
Running my hands along the turquoise Formica counter at H&H Car Wash and Coffee Shop in El Paso, watching the women spoon caldillo (green chile beef stew) into bowls and folding tortillas to make egg and chorizo breakfast burritos, felt like an archetypal Texas moment. But then, so did dinner at Kemuri Tatsu-ya in Austin, slurping ramen enriched with smoked brisket and banana pudding topped with kokuto (crackly Japanese brown sugar) and miso caramel.
My appetite certainly qualifies as Texas-sized, but no one person can pull off an authoritative survey of a place so far-reaching. Ten writers with deep local roots joined me in whittling down a small nation’s worth of restaurants to the crucial 38. Texans have a famous breed of zeal and loyalty for their homeland; there will be vehement disagreements over our choices. Let’s hash it out while standing in line for brisket and potato salad at Cattleack Barbeque in Dallas, or maybe over a Deluxe Mexican Plate at Garcia’s in San Antonio. — Bill Addison, national critic
WHAT: A thoroughly Austin outdoor haven with ranch-inspired eats. WHY: Austin is brimming with al fresco spaces — it’s got the ideal weather for ’em — but there is something special about chef Andrew Wiseheart’s restaurant. Contigo is both timeless and sturdily Texan, with a menu full of modern bar food that begs to be consumed outdoors: ox tongue sliders, oh-so-crispy green beans, hearty cast-iron pans of rabbit and dumplings, and the stellar house-made charcuterie, all rounded out with Texas fruits and vegetables. Idle beneath the strung lights on the expansive patio, mezcal cocktail in hand, and soak up the Austin vibes. — Nadia Chaudhury
2027 Anchor Lane
(512) 614-2260 | contigotexas.com
Emmer & Rye
WHAT: A light-filled, modern American bistro that builds polished menus around a zeal for heirloom grains. WHY: Owner and executive chef Kevin Fink has made a calling card out of milling his own wheat for pastas like White Sonora agnolotti filled with smoked potato and the gratifyingly chewy Blue Beard Durum spaghetti for his signature cacio e pepe. It’s a jumping-off point for the restaurant’s overall greatness: Service is amazingly engaged. Vegetable-centric dishes — ribbons of minted kohlrabi hiding blue crab meat, charred broccoli with burnt tangerine glaze and benne seed — hearken to the season and to national dining trends. The wine list leans obscure and funky. Ace pastry chef Tavel Bristol-Joseph brings the meal home with sweets like strawberry sorbet covered in salted cream and a caramelized apple tart with smoked juniper ice cream. In an area of downtown Austin chock-o-block with dining options, Emmer & Rye easily distinguishes itself from the crowd. — B.A.
51 Rainey Street
(512) 366-5530 | emmerandrye.com
WHAT: The best brisket in Texas. WHY: It’s been less than a decade since Aaron and Stacy Franklin started slinging brisket from a trailer along the interstate. In that short time, they upgraded to a brick-and-mortar, they served our last president, and Aaron Franklin took home a James Beard award. They’ve not only created the country’s most popular barbecue joint, but they’ve also influenced pitmasters around the world. Through videos and a best-selling book, “Franklin-style” barbecue can now be found on most every continent. Even last year’s pit-room fire couldn’t keep them down for long, as the famous lines have re-emerged outside their Austin restaurant. It’s still worth the wait. — Daniel Vaughn
900 East 11th Street
(512) 653-1187 | franklinbbq.com
WHAT: An unholy yet wholly triumphant mashup of Japanese and Texan food cultures. WHY: Chefs (and hip-hop DJs) Tatsu Aikawa and Takuya “Tako” Matsumoto run an izakaya in a former barbecue restaurant, and they take their culinary cues from their surroundings. Amid smoke-stained walls lined with old Japanese beer ads and beat-up Texas license plates, they serve delicious aberrations like “guaca-poke” and sticky rice tamales with beef tongue and chorizo. Their take on takoyaki combines octopus fritters with beefy chili, molten cheese, and smoked jalapeno — a Frito pie from an alternate, aquatic universe. It all sounds so bizarre, and it all comes together so seamlessly and pleasurably. This place is adored and waits can be long; a Matcha Pain Killer laced with buckwheat shochu and tequila will tranquilize you into serenity. — B.A.
2713 East 2nd Street
(512) 893-5561 | kemuri-tatsuya.com
WHAT: Austin casual with sophisticated execution. WHY: The restaurant from James Beard Award-nominated chef Bryce Gilmore epitomizes contemporary Austin cuisine. He and his team take Texas-forever ingredients (think seasonal carrots and tomatoes, grass-fed cattle, and chickens raised nearby) and deploys them in a slate of fun, flavorful small plates, where influences range from Indian to German to, yes, Tex-Mex. Where else can you find pretzels stuffed with chorizo-spiced mushrooms that taste meaty despite being vegetarian, whole chicken-fried fish heads, and breakfast pizzas topped with quail? The restaurant (which, in true Austin fashion, began as a food truck) is also a major booster for the local farming community — going so far as to emblazon farm names on the dining room walls. — N.C.
1201 South Lamar Boulevard
(512) 433-6521 | oddduckaustin.com
Tamale House East
WHAT: Tex-Mex classics and community, from third-generation Austin taco royalty. WHY: In a town changing so fast it’s perpetually in danger of losing its roots, Tamale House East is a welcome oasis of both continuity and evolution. Carmen Valera, one of the five siblings who own the restaurant, says a third of their menu is identical to what her grandparents served at their now-shuttered restaurant in the ’60s, a third is straight from her mother’s now-shuttered restaurant from the ’80s and ’90s, and a third is all-new. The restaurant’s migas, enchiladas, tacos, and tamales are made with the same care the Vasquez-Valera family has employed for three generations, served in a homey East Sixth space with an absolutely killer patio. — Meghan McCarron
1707 East 6th Street
(512) 495-9504 | no website
Veracruz All Natural
WHAT: Austin’s deserving crowd favorite for righteous breakfast tacos. WHY: With scores of options in Austin and San Antonio (for starters), and plenty of controversial and passionate words written about origins and ownership, it’s safe to say there is no one absolute best place for breakfast tacos in Texas. But Veracruz sisters and co-owners Reyna and Maritza Vazquez did create a modern institution when they began serving breakfast tacos out of an Austin trailer in 2008. Their migas taco — cradling scrambled eggs, Monterey Jack, onions, cilantro, a slice or two of avocado, and crumbled tortilla chips — became a morning ritual for locals and visitors alike. I still love the trailer. However, the Vazquez’s brick-and-mortar in Austin’s North Burnet neighborhood cranks out food with even more precision and also offers picadas, masa creations that split the divide in texture between tortillas and thicker sopes. — B.A.
1704 East Cesar Chavez (and other locations)
(512) 981-1760 | veracruzallnatural.com
WHAT: Whole-hog barbecue done the old-fashioned way. WHY: Todd David at Cattleack is the only pitmaster in Texas serving whole-hog barbecue on a regular schedule, and that’s still just on the first Saturday of every month. Every other day it’s open, you’ll have to settle for some of Texas’s best brisket, house-made sausages (get the green chile and cheese), and maybe the best spare ribs in the state. More impressive is how consistently David produces it. Between the weather, wood, and meat, there are plenty of variables to deal with when cooking in an offset smoker, but Cattleack’s barbecue never seems to suffer. — D.V.
13628 Gamma Road
(972) 805-0999 | cattleackbbq.com
WHAT: Southern comfort food in one of Dallas’s swankiest dining rooms from one of the city’s stalwart chefs. WHY: Wearing his unmistakable toothy smile and custom-made Lucchese boots, Dean Fearing has played a huge role in shaping the city’s culinary identity for decades. Start a meal in this bright, luxe-casual dining room with Fearing’s iconic, smoky, and creamy tortilla soup, then feast on Granny’s fried chicken, shaken with flour and spices before being fried to perfection in cast iron. Or take the Texas theme over the top with a plate of fork-tender beef short ribs that are braised in Dr Pepper (the state’s unofficial beverage) and served over a pile of jalapeno grits. — Amy McCarthy
2121 McKinney Avenue
Dallas, TX, 75201
(214) 922-4848 | fearingsrestaurant.com
WHAT: A handmade-pasta shop whose impeccable noodles are second only to the salumi. WHY: Amid an ever-changing menu that might feature gnocchi with cabbage and crispy yeast or a salad of ripe pears and chicory with cheese, one thing remains constant at Lucia: the salumi plate. David Uygur’s homage to the pig is a stunning array of standard favorites like salami, coppa, and thinly sliced lardo that wilts to translucence under the heat of the warm bread it sits upon. Uygur has more fun with unfamiliar varieties like fiocco, blood salami, and two spreadable salamis, neither of which are ’nduja. It’s like a graduate-level course for cured meats where spectacular pasta is just for extra credit. — D.V.
408 W. 8th Street
(214) 948-4998 | luciadallas.com
Revolver Taco Lounge/Purépecha
WHAT: The taqueria with the little back room that’s a Mexican food game changer for Texas. WHY: This Dallas taqueria is no mere taco spot. Carnitas-style octopus capped with shredded and fried leeks shares menu real estate with wagyu carne asada. Kermit in Bangkok (frog legs in a house-made yellow curry garnished with almonds) hangs with the Degenerado (aged chorizo and carne asada topped with frijoles de olla and a quail egg). The dishes are served on seconds-old tortillas and casually devoured at communal tables or bar tops. Then there’s the back room — the Purépecha Room — a reservation-only, eight-course tasting-menu space appointed to resemble the Michoacán kitchen of chef-owner Regino Rojas’s mother. And it’s Doña Juanita herself who — with the help of her family — prepares Purépecha’s menu, an ever-changing carousel of traditional Mexican ingredients presented in untraditional ways. Little wonder Rojas was long-listed for a 2018 Best Chef: Southwest James Beard Foundation Award. — José R. Ralat
WHAT: A sanctuary of a restaurant in Dallas’s congested downtown, where one of the country’s outstanding Japanese chefs practices the art of soba. WHY: Tei-An’s menu winds through broad territory: tempura, udon, ramen, sashimi, curry rice, and dishes like braised beef tongue and okonomiyaki. But the richest terrain is the soba — fresh buckwheat noodles, notoriously difficult to form and cut, that Teiichi Sakurai crafts daily. Relish them simply, mounded on a woven bamboo mat alongside a dashi dipping sauce simmered with duck meat. To experience the complete measure of Sakurai’s skills, call ahead to request the seven-course omakase: It often weaves in blockbuster Japanese ingredients like A5 wagyu beef and ultra-seasonal fish but always concludes with a meditative plate of soba. — B.A.
1722 Routh Street (One Arts Plaza)
(214) 220-2828 | tei-an.com
Fred’s Texas Cafe
WHAT: Proof that a passion for chuck-wagon vittles supersedes that for finer fare. WHY: Even in the shadow of West 7th district’s flashy new developments, the original Fred’s Texas Café still shines bright as a beacon for down-home Texas cuisine. Terry Chandler — known as the Outlaw Chef for his early West Texas chuck-wagon days — took the reins of his family’s restaurant in 2005. He has has since opened two additional locations, but the expansion hasn’t changed his simple mission: Serve “cold-ass” beer to wash down the finest chicken-fried steak in town, smothered in a sourdough batter and cooked just till the golden crust delivers the perfect crunch. Served along with hand-cut fries made to order — and a cute green salad to help you feel virtuous — this giant plate is deeply satisfying. Yeah, everyone knows Fred’s for killer burgers, but as any cattle drover can tell you, the CFS is the true prize. — June Naylor
915 Currie Street
Fort Worth, TX
(817) 332-0083 | fredstexascafe.com
Swiss Pastry Shop
WHAT: Extraordinary burgers in an old-world sweets shop, borne from the mind of a classically trained pastry chef. WHY: While Hans Peter Muller continues to produce the European baked goods made popular here by his late Swiss-born father (you won’t find anything as ethereal as this distinctive version of Black Forest cake), this second-generation pastry chef has also become Cowtown’s finest burger meister. Muller wows his loyal cafe clientele with inventive Texas-raised Akaushi wagyu burgers — towering, sizzling-hot creations that thrill the palate. Best is the seasonal special Cloudcroft Christmas Burger, combining New Mexican red and green chiles with pepper jack cheese and grilled onions atop the supple patty, all crowned with a fried egg and framed by a house-baked brioche bun. — J.N.
3936 W. Vickery Boulevard
Fort Worth, TX
(817) 732-5661 | swisspastryonline.com
BCN Taste & Tradition
WHAT: An exceptional and luxurious foray into Catalan cuisine. WHY: Is that actual artwork by Picasso and Miró gilding the restaurant’s minimalist space? Yes, yes it is. In 2014 Houston entrepreneur Ignacio Torras coaxed Luis Roger, an accomplished chef and fellow Barcelona native, to move to Texas and partner on a venture that glorifies their home country’s cuisine. Superb tapas (shaved jamón ibérico, lush pan con tomate, crisp-creamy patatas bravas) and potent gin-and-tonic variations bobbing with whole spices set the meal’s foundation. Roger builds upon these standards with more outre dishes, like sauteed sea cucumber with lobster rice and an improbable but smashing entree of duck breast with quince, Idiazábal cheese sauce, pine nuts, and balsamic reduction. Service is uniformly dashing. Book well ahead, or be prepared to dine at the well-trafficked but comfortable bar near the entrance. — B.A.
4210 Roseland Street
(832) 834-3411 | bcnhouston.com
Crawfish & Noodles
WHAT: A James Beard-nominated strip-mall sensation that beautifully showcases the uniquely Houston fusion of Cajun crawfish boils with Vietnamese flavors. WHY: Don’t be alarmed at the tarp-like tablecloths and rolls of paper towels at the table. Tucked into a strip mall in Houston’s sprawling Asiatown, the Viet-Cajun crawfish at Crawfish & Noodles are truly transcendent — boiled then tossed in a buttery, spicy, garlicky, lemongrass-infused sauce that coats each individual mudbug. There are also whole fried crabs to devour by the pound and bowls of noodles simmered with shrimp and barbecued pork, topped with a runny quail egg. — Amy McCarthy
11360 Bellaire Boulevard #990
(281) 988-8098 | (no website)
WHAT: A celebration of Pakistani cooking from the skilled hands and elastic mind of chef-owner Kaiser Lashkari. WHY: Lashkari and his wife, Azra Babar Lashkari, are ever-present in their boxy strip-mall restaurant in the city’s Mahatma Gandhi District. Their kitchen turns out nearly 100 distinct dishes, many with regional Indian origins, but the key is to order gems inspired by Kaiser Lashkari’s native Pakistan. He excels in a rarity known as hunter beef, a preparation similar to pastrami, best served cold, in thick slices, with sinus-buzzing mustard. Resha gosht, hailing from the southwestern province of Balochistan, pairs steamed and shredded beef with a brightly herbed tomato sauce. The Pakistani affinity for beef plays so well in Texas that Lashkari dreamed up on-point “friendly fusion” weekend specials, such as smoked brisket masala, to bridge the cultures. — B.A.
6652 Southwest Freeway
(713) 532-2837 | himalayarestauranthouston.com
WHAT: Hugo Ortega and Tracy Vaught’s gracious, 16-year-old lodestar of hospitality, whose success presaged this moment of upscale Mexican dining in the United States. WHY: The couple’s other standout Houston restaurants, Xochi and Caracol, specialize, respectively, in Oaxacan and Mexican coastal cuisines. Hugo’s menu, on the other hand, is a national survey of the country’s most legendary dishes; Ortega’s genius for employing spice and intensifying meaty flavors creates the through-line between them. Zoom in on cabrito with roasted cactus, lechón with a piercing habanero salsa, and lamb barbacoa. Saturday brunch is Hugo’s calmer service shift, but that’s when the kitchen turns out sublime, sculptural chilaquiles with chicken and tomatillo salsa. — B.A.
1600 Westheimer Road
(713) 524-7744 | hugosrestaurant.net
WHAT: A rambling, glitzy, big-hearted chophouse that couldn’t — and wouldn’t — exist anywhere but Texas. WHY: Ronnie Killen’s steakhouse and barbecue restaurant singlehandedly put Pearland, a small town south of Houston, on the national meat map. His newest venture, a steakhouse-barbecue hybrid called Killen’s STQ, opened in Houston proper in 2016. I’m fondest of Killen’s firstborn. Serving Texas beef is rarer in Lone Star steakhouses than you might expect, which makes the gorgeously marbled wagyu ribeye raised by local farmstead Marble Ranch a double treat. Encircle the steak with all the traditional creamy and carb-powered side dishes. For pure Texan comfort, order the upscale rendering of chicken-fried steak, golden and crisp and covered in peppery white gravy. — B.A.
6425 Broadway Street
(281) 485-0844 | killenssteakhouse.com
WHAT: A culinary mind meld of two veteran chefs whose menus express the sprawling, global, ever-dynamic mosaic of cuisines that define Houston dining. WHY: Ross Coleman and James Haywood prove exceptionally adept at distilling tastes and textures into dishes that leave you invigorated. A winning spread here might include chicken, shrimp, and andouille-sausage gumbo depth-charged with smoked fish (an homage to thiéboudienne, the national dish of Senegal, where gumbo’s predecessor originated); crisp shreds of turkey-neck meat cradled in bibb lettuce leaves with Vietnamese nuoc mam cham for dipping; and catfish tikka masala. Weekend brunch crowds fill every seat in the restaurant’s cavernous dining room, clamoring for the straight-up goodness of dishes that veer closer to home: peppery fried chicken with biscuits. — B.A.
4601 Washington Avenue
(713) 842-7114 | kitchen713.com
WHAT: Authentic Vietnamese pho house in Houston’s Chinatown area. WHY: Thanks to Houston’s large Vietnamese immigrant community, pho shops specializing in Vietnam’s heady, fragrant noodle soup have become as easy to find as McDonald’s. Still, there are only a handful of restaurants that deserve top honors, and Pho Dien, which gained acclaim by serving sides of raw, marinated filet mignon called tai uop, is the finest example of Houston’s nascent pho revolution. The emphasis here is on quality ingredients. Owner Tony Dien Pham simmers his all-beef bone broth for a minimum of 12 hours to create a silky, delicately spiced, soul-warming bowl that is easily one of the best in the country. — Mai Pham
11830 Bellaire Boulevard
(281) 495-9600 | phodienhouston.webs.com
The Original Ninfa’s on Navigation
WHAT: A Tex-Mex landmark whose timeless signature — skirt steak fajitas — defies and transcends chain-restaurant bastardization. WHY: Ninfa Laurenzo, known as Mama Ninfa, opened her restaurant in 1973 in front of her family’s tortilla factory. She took special pride in her version of 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 an oft-imitated (and, for a time, franchised) sensation. Today the kitchen meanders into modern whimsies like roasted oysters topped with spiced crab meat in the restaurant’s wood-burning oven. But the fajita steak — smoky and tender-chewy, the ideal star ingredient to bundle into fragrant handmade tortillas — is the stuff of bucket lists and special detours. — B.A.
2704 Navigation Boulevard
(713) 228-1175 | ninfas.com
WHAT: A modern Indian cafe and bakery serving Indian street food with a Gulf Coast spin. WHY: From colorful breakfast and dinner thalis to a phenomenal Indian-spiced, gluten-free, chickpea-crusted fried chicken, three-time James Beard award nominee Anita Jaisinghani takes the stuff of traditional Indian street food — chaat, dosas, pani poori — and turns out beautiful, artistically plated food that vibrates with authenticity while still showing contemporary Gulf Coast flair. Spices are deftly applied to just about everything: desi fries dusted with chaat masala; barley salad with beets, toasted walnuts, and turmeric-almond dressing; and finger-licking ribs swathed, barbecue-style, with vindaloo. — M.P.
2800 Kirby Drive, Suite b132
(713) 522-2022 | pondichericafe.com
WHAT: A tiny, only-in-Houston bistro where diners savor the wondrous, eclectic cooking of Justin Yu, the city’s best chef. WHY: Last year Yu reinvented his tasting-menu innovator Oxheart into Theodore Rex, a more laid-back restaurant with an a la carte menu. The food still bears the chef’s indelible stamps — featured roles for vegetables, the twists and turns in flavor that come from fermentation, and masterful toggling between restrained subtlety and umami thunderbolts — but is now less controlled and often wonderfully weirder. A recent dinner began with a serotonin-boosting plate of tangelos, snow peas, and thyme before veering funky (and peak Yu) with a stew of brisket warmed in pickle juice, crumbled white cheddar, and preserved vegetables. — B.A.
1302 Nance Street
(832) 830-8592 | trexhouston.com
WHAT: The crown jewel of San Antonio’s restaurant-rich Pearl District. WHY: Cured’s name refers both to chef-owner Steve McHugh’s victory as a survivor of lymphoma, and also to the restaurant’s extraordinary charcuterie program. A glassed-in locker at the restaurant’s entrance displays beauties like culatello (ham made from the loin of a pig’s hind leg) aged for one year, and the kitchen assembles smart novelties such as hot goat sausage and catfish mortadella. Mexican flavors also murmur through McHugh’s modern American menu — masa-fried oysters over sopes with black beans and avocado mousse, bison tartare with huitlacoche puree, braised lamb neck with hominy stew. Look for the po’ boy specials at lunch: They hearken impressively to McHugh’s years of cooking in New Orleans. — B.A.
306 Pearl Parkway
San Antonio, TX
(210) 314-3929 | curedatpearl.com
Garcia’s Mexican Food
WHAT: The apotheosis of a great Tex-Mex restaurant and its irresistible comforts. WHY: I acknowledge the lunacy of distinguishing one Tex-Mex combo plate above all others in a state full of citizens weaned on its specific delights (or at least happily sustained by them). But a recent re-visit to Garcia’s, run by the same family since 1962, confirmed my devotion to its Deluxe Mexican Dinner plate: The oversize platter includes two cheesy enchiladas and a pork tamale covered in chili con carne and additional cloud banks of yellow cheese (say yes to the option of chopped onions); a freshly fried crispy taco stuffed with ground beef, shredded iceberg lettuce, and diced tomato; sides of rice and refried beans creamy with lard and bacon fat; and, brought first as a starter, a chalupa smeared with guacamole. Two wonderfully odd tacos on homemade flour tortillas complete my ideal Garcia’s meal: one filled with a supple slice of smoked brisket, also killer with a splotch of guac, and the other wrapped around a bone-in pork chop. — B.A.
842 Fredericksburg Road
San Antonio, TX
(210) 735-5686 | no website
WHAT: A 12-seat think tank of a restaurant, from two chef-scholars meditating on the cuisines of Mexico through tasting menus. WHY: Every 45 dinners, Diego Galicia and Rico Torres introduce a new theme — perhaps a state of Mexico, or a period of the country’s history — around which they build multicourse dinners. Currently, for example, their subject is “Rediscovering the Mayan Gastronomy”; one dish, equally stunning in taste and appearance, expresses the lost empire’s trade routes by combining quinoa, fish roes, and avocado. The meal, ticketed at $97 per person, typically careens through seven or eight courses and lasts a concise 90 minutes or so. It is arguably the most avant-garde restaurant experience in Texas, but the modernistic, academic cooking also delivers ample poignancy and pleasure. — B.A.
5251 McCullough Avenue
San Antonio, TX
(210) 338-0746 | restaurantmixtli.com
Ray’s Drive Inn
WHAT: The home of the puffy taco. WHY: Arturo Lopez gave San Antonio something to brag about in the 1960s when he invented what became known as the “puffy taco” — a chubby tortilla that’s fried until puffed, no longer than 45 seconds. Though there are others that can replicate that magic — Los Barrios, Teka Molino, Henry’s Puffy Tacos — Ray’s Drive Inn, with its throwback Spurs signage, virgen shrine, and “Budweiser y Tacos” neon, is a living time capsule of old-school San Antonio. Even after Lopez’s passing in 2015, the pillowy bites still satiate that puro San Antonio craving to the tune of 500 puffy tacos a day. — Jessica Elizarraras
822 Southwest 19th Street
San Antonio, TX
(210) 432-7171 | raysdriveinn.net
WHAT: Barbecue con ganas, made by a former La Barbecue employee and his high school best friend. WHY: From its inception as a pop-up inside Grace Bible Church to its eventual launch inside a former Tex-Mex dive in December 2016, 2M Smokehouse has quietly set the tone for what San Antonio locals want out of their barbecue experience. The Lower Southeast shop entices barbecue zealots with buttery brisket, sausage links stuffed with Oaxaca cheese and spicy serranos, and, on the first Sunday of every month, barbacoa — a south Texas staple. Loaded potato salads, pickled cactus, and “chicharoni” (macaroni with a topper of crumbled, fried pork skins) are all original musts. — J.E.
2731 South WW White Road
San Antonio, TX
(210) 885-9352 | 2msmokehouse.com
H&H Car Wash and Coffee House
WHAT: A border town legend, serving breakfast and lunch dishes that embody its unique corner of America — all while detailing your ride. WHY: Lovably grouchy Maynard Haddad runs the combination business started by his father — Najib Haddad, a Syrian immigrant —in 1958. Along the turquoise Formica counter, regulars and visitors gather for diner food with a dynamic sense of place. Look past the burgers, grilled cheese, and eggs with bacon for the specialties that reflect El Paso’s locus at the edge of Texas, Mexico, and New Mexico: slim breakfast burritos filled with picadillo or eggs and chorizo, enchiladas smothered in ruddy chile Colorado or chile verde, and huevos rancheros. Dubious at how many separate items I was ordering, the server stopped me and said, “If you want to know our food, order the deluxe plate.” A gushing chile relleno anchored the feast. She was right, of course. — B.A.
701 East Yandell Drive
El Paso, TX
(915) 533-1144 | no website
WHAT: Southeast Texas’s finest beef links for more than a century. WHY: If links and rice dressing don’t come to mind when you think of Texas barbecue, you’ve been spending too much time in Austin. In southeast Texas, garlic- and chile-laced beef links bursting with juice (don’t call it fat in SETX) are the barbecue gold standard, and the Patillo family has been serving them since 1912. The juice will run like a faucet once you’ve cut a link open, so have a slice of white bread, or better yet, a pile of rice dressing — similar to dirty rice — ready to capture it all. You might as well mix in some sauce, made from owner Robert Patillo’s grandmother’s recipe. — D.V.
2775 Washington Boulevard
(409) 833-3156 | no website
Perini Ranch Steakhouse
WHAT: The state’s best (and most humble) country steakhouse with a pretty fancy pedigree. WHY: Lifelong cattle rancher and chuck-wagon cook Tom Perini turned an old barn into Texas’s most popular steak destination 35 years ago. He’s since claimed the James Beard Foundation’s America’s Classics award and is the Beard House’s most frequently featured Texan. This is partly because his pepper-crusted, mesquite-grilled strip; bone-in cowboy ribeye; his spicy-fried quail legs; hominy laced with green chiles and bacon; and sourdough bread pudding with pecans and whiskey sauce can’t be beaten. It’s helped along by sommelier Lisa — also his wife — who hones a smart wine list with intriguing choices from the West Coast as well as Europe and South America. But the fame — and a guest list that often includes presidents, governors, musicians, and movie stars — is mostly due to Tom himself, who treats every customer like a welcome friend at his kitchen table. — J.N.
3002 FM 89
Buffalo Gap, TX
(325) 572-3339 | periniranch.com
WHAT: A tasting-menu restaurant in middle-of-nowhere West Texas that actually lives up to the romantic fantasy of such diversions. WHY: Chef Laurie Williamson and her husband Robert left behind successful careers in commercial filmmaking and opened their restaurant in a restored 1870s-era limestone farmhouse in 2003. They serve dinner only on Friday and Saturday nights. Laurie’s weekly changing menus — built around handsomely rustic dishes like mustardy, coarsely chopped beef tartare and smoky grilled quail over polenta — drew such a following from admirers around the state that in 2012 the couple built five guest rooms on the property. Overnight stays include breakfasts (maybe grits and eggs scattered with bacon lardons) made with the same city-meets-country finesse. — B.A.
2969 CR 422
(325) 636-4556 | rancholoma.com
Rudy & Paco
WHAT: The best restaurant on Galveston Island — and arguably the entire Texas Gulf Coast. WHY: The fishing boats are docked a few blocks away and the specialty is Gulf red snapper — called “pargo” here, as it is in Nicaragua, homeland of Francisco “Paco” Vargas (there are also baskets of plantain chips on every table). The pargo elegante, topped with avocado and crabmeat, is stunning. Try the raw seafood tower, decked with seasonal shellfish, ceviches, and crab claws. Service is old-school elegant — the waitstaff lifts the silver domes over your entrees in unison. Voila! — Robb Walsh
2028 Postoffice Street
(409) 762-3696| rudyandpaco.com
WHAT: The pinnacle of Texas barbecue from 82-year-old pitmaster Tootsie Tomanetz. WHY: Yes, it’s only open once a week, and it usually sells out before the lunch hour, but Snow’s BBQ is exceptional. The salty brisket is superb, especially from the fatty end. The smoked chicken is so popular, it’s usually the first to vanish. Pork steaks and spare ribs will have you questioning why anyone would say Texans can only barbecue beef. If the barbecue weren’t reason enough to come, being able to watch veteran pitmaster Tomanetz shovel coals, flip half chickens, and mop the pork steaks with her special mop sauce is alone worth an early wake-up call. — D.V.
516 Main Street
(979) 773-4640 | snowsbbq.com
WHAT: A taco chain to rule them all, rooted in regional tradition. WHY: Texas is an endless font of mega-successful Tex-Mex fast food, from statewide standard Taco Cabana to hipster hegemon Torchy’s, but a regional chain slinging freshly cooked tortillas and menudo, with a fresh salsa bar at every location? That’s next level. Founded in 1987 by Juan Francisco Ochoa, Taco Palenque’s 20-plus locations serve a quality, affordable version of the state’s border cuisine — including its iconic pirata taco, made with beans, cheese, and fajita meat, that’s beloved in Laredo and beyond. —M.M.
Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que
WHAT: The last standard-bearer of a Texas culinary tradition along the Rio Grande. WHY: There was a time when shops specializing in barbacoa de cabeza en pozo a la leña (whole beef head cooked slowly in an underground, mesquite-fueled barbecue pit) dotted South Texas. Today, there remains only 63-year-old Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que in the Spanish-is-as-good-as-English border town of Brownsville. Owner Armando Vera runs what is likely the last restaurant cooking barbacoa de cabeza with wood in the Lone Star State, opening only weekends to dole out shimmering cuts of cheek, tongue, lips, and other head cuts served with warm corn or flour tortillas. It’s not unusual for Vera’s to be sold out of meat before it closes at 2 p.m., but the first to go is what Vera calls “Mexican caviar.” That would be cow eyes. — J.R.R.
2404 Southmost Road
(956) 546-4159 | no website
The Village Bakery
WHAT: The oldest Czech bakery in Texas, opened in 1952. WHY: Czechs began immigrating to Texas in the 1850s, and many settled in the fertile, blackland strip down the center of the state, including in the small town of West. Their culinary traditions — as well as their language and polka music — have endured and fused with local culture to yield pastries and plates that are distinctly Texas. The folksy Village Bakery often gets overshadowed by shinier establishments right off Interstate 35, but drive over the tracks into downtown west for quintessential Texas Czech treats. There are no fad flavors served here. Instead, buttery, yeasty kolaches with authentic fillings like apricot, poppyseed, and cream cheese are displayed side by side with more obscure offerings, like sweet buchta rolls and, at Christmas, the braided bread known as vanocka. The Village Bakery is the self-proclaimed inventor of the now-ubiquitous sausage kolaches. Ask for them by the bakery’s trademarked name, klobasniki. — Dawn Orsak
113 East Oak Street
(254) 826-5151 | no website