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In Houston, A Menu as Diverse as The City Itself

It’s not all Southern food and Tex-Mex — Houston’s food scene has more to offer than you might imagine.

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Houston, the fourth largest city in the United States, is often misunderstood, especially in terms of its cuisine. A sprawling Southwestern metropolis of five million strong, for years, it was dismissed as a place that only excelled at things like Tex-Mex and steak.

In last five years, however, Houston has raised its status to become one of the country’s culinary leaders. Houston’s chefs have clinched some of the most coveted dining awards, leaving the Southwestern darlings of Austin and New Orleans — which so often get the bulk of the media attention — struggling to stay in the game. The Houston hot streak may have began with the award-winning chef Chris Shepherd. A true advocate of the city’s fine dining, even encourages diners to patronize other local restaurants outside of his own. Today, renowned chefs and national food writers are putting Houston on their regular rotation, going so far as to proclaim that Houston could quite possibly be the “Next Global Food Mecca.”

Chris Shepherd

Sure, Houston has its fair share of fried chicken and gourmet comfort food —what one would characterize as “Southern food” — but these days, eating in Houston is a veritable culinary journey through a kaleidoscopic, multi-ethic landscape. Here’s what you’ll find throughout Houston.

We should start in one of Houston’s oldest, historic neighborhoods, the East End. Home to one of the largest collections of public murals in the city, this area has a rich cultural history dating back to the early Industrial age, when the area saw a large influx of Mexican and Asian immigrants. It may not be surprising, then, that this is also the birthplace of the Tex-Mex dish known as the fajita. Invented by a Mexican mother of five in the early 1970’s, the marinated, sizzling skirt steak, accompanied by fixin’s such as queso, guacamole, and fresh flour tortillas, is still as popular today as ever, and there’s no better place to get your fix of this Southwestern dish.

West of the East End, you’ll find EaDo (short for East downtown), a term coined by a local street artist that delineates a small strip of the real estate to the east of Interstate 10 and the Minute Maid Park, in the shadow of downtown. Here, you’ll find craft beer breweries and trendy coffee shops, with new eateries serving poke alongside some of the most enduring Vietnamese restaurants in the area. But it’s also the site of an emerging chef-driven restaurant scene, one where you just might swoon over a plate of Turkish lamb dumplings at the local neighborhood restaurant du jour.

Over in Midtown, just south of Downtown, gentrification has brought everything from an outdoor hamburger stand to an Japanese-style izakaya serving tapas, to a Portuguese restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. But here, the vestiges of a burgeoning Little Saigon, which thrived in the early ’80’s and 90’s, still remain along Milam Street. Come here for steaming hot bowls of pho (Vietnamese beef noodle soup), and combo meals made of banh mi Vietnamese sandwich and cafe sua da Vietnamese iced coffee.

Over in River Oaks, one of Houston’s most affluent residential neighborhoods, you’ll find everything from French cuisine, to American fine dining and upscale Sichuan restaurants, but it’s oysters on the half shell that reign supreme, often accompanied by bottles of champagne.

The Galleria is where the big chain restaurants and more upscale eateries abound. It’s also where you’ll find some of Houston’s best steak, which range from traditional steakhouses with massive, leather bound wine lists, to Brazilian churrascarias offering belt-busting rodizio-style meat buffets.

Further “outside the loop,” — which is to say outside of the I-610 freeway loop in the Westchase area — Persian and Mediterranean cuisine are in abundance. This is where you go for kebabs and shawarma.

The Mahatma Gandhi District off of Hilcroft is the destination for all manner of India and Indo-Pakistani delights, ranging from vegetarian saag paneer and South Indian dosas, to goat biryani rice dishes, and Indian snacks like chaat and dahi puri.

Then there’s the Asiatown area, so dubbed by the local media thanks to the wide swath of Asia that it represents. Stretching roughly eight miles along Bellaire Boulevard, it’s here that you’ll find Singaporean, Chinese, Taiwanese, Thai, Korean, Japanese, Malayasian, Vietnamese and everything in between. From Shanghai-style soup dumplings to spicy, mouth-numbing Sichuan hot pot, to all-day Cantonese dim sum and specialty Vietnamese restaurants serving Bo 7 Mon beef 7 ways, or the newest genre of cuisine known as Viet-Cajun, Houston’s Asiatown has it all.

We haven’t even touched on where to find sushi (Houston’s is excellent), or barbecue, which is making a serious comeback in the Bayou City. Nor have we had time to talk about how South African cuisine is now so popular that a fast casual concept debuting in the local grocery store. But that’s the beauty eating in Houston.

Just when you thought you’d tried everything, you realize there’s a new Filipino fried chicken place opening down the street, or a new Italian spot serving authentic Neopolitan thin-crust pizza, or a British gastropub where you can get scotch eggs and curry. That’s the menu on offer in Houston today. Go out and get some.

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