Exploring America’s Foodtopia, bite by bite.
By John A. Nechman
The extraordinary, frenetically evolving mix of people and dreams that has fueled Houston for decades means we’re a radically different city from 1972, when I moved here as a child. Back then, the closest Asian food to my family’s home north of Humble (way out in the boonies) was the Sun Deluxe, all the way downtown in what was then Chinatown and now is the East End. “Houston cuisine” pretty much meant “fried”—preferably with cream gravy or tartar sauce, or smothered in chile and cheese. How things have changed! (Google “Houston 10 best food cities” for the Washington Post video overview of Houston’s diverse culinary scene.)
Today, Houston proudly boasts about being the most ethnically and racially diverse city in America, and the effects have been mesmerizing. A typical day in the Bayou City might begin with boudin kolaches, followed by a lunch of Cajun-spiced crawfish phở or kosher chicken fried steak with faux “cream” gravy, or a visit to one of our massive dim sum palaces—sometimes even featuring strolling mariachis! Dinner could be Halal carne asada or smoked brisket followed by hookah pipes and Arabic sweets.
We are the fortunate inhabitants of America’s most underrated food city. Even if the rest of the world has been slow to discover us, Houstonians celebrate the city’s culinary riches. We have the most restaurants per capita in America, and thanks to our low cost of living, healthy appetites, and willingness to try everything, we eat out more than any other city in the country. From breakfast tacos, fajitas (invented in Space City, thank you), Cajun, and one-of-a-kind East Texas soul food, to our tantalizing dishes from every sector of the globe, we truly live in Foodtopia, USA.
Here is the result of my nearly impossible task of paring down the endless choices to produce a list of H-Town’s 30 best:
Houston’s Top 30 Restaurants
($$$ = Very Expensive; $$ = Medium Expensive; $ = CHEAP!)
1. Killen’s BBQ
3613 East Broadway St., Pearland
killensbarbecue.com • $
I never thought I’d say this, but Houston has a place serving better BBQ than Austin and the Hill Country. That makes Killen’s the best in Texas—which obviously means the best on Earth. Chef Ronnie Killen could make a flat tire taste delicious. The Tuesday-only chicken fried steak is the best in town; the Sunday fried chicken is phenomenal; the brisket and beef ribs have been known to cause the most devout vegetarians to cry uncle. The drive is worth it, and so is the wait, which can be downright gay thanks to free Lone Star beer from the keg by the door.
24 Waterway Ave., The Woodlands
Global Tasting Menu
hubbellandhudson.com/cureight • $$$
One of the finest trips you can make involves driving just north of the city, booking a hotel room on the Woodlands Waterway, and splurging on a Michelin-star-quality evening at Cureight, helmed by 28-year-old executive chef Austin Simmons, whose pedigree includes Dallas’ top kitchens. Big D’s loss is H-Town’s immense gain. The eight-course tasting menu is an exhilarating global adventure. I’ve enjoyed two different menus here that had me nearly recreating
the Meg Ryan scene from When Harry Met Sally.
3. The Pass
New American Tasting Menu
passandprovisions.com • $$$
Once the Michelin peeps realize how insane they are not to have Houston as one of their coverage cities, the question is not whether the brilliant Pass (which coexists with its gentler-priced sister, Provisions) will garner stars; it’s how many. Chefs Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan have created an ambitious, wildly successful Space City masterpiece. Ask for whichever tasting menu provides the most courses—you won’t regret it, nor the dear price tag. Some have called this Houston’s Noma. Maybe the folks in Copenhagen should instead refer to Noma as their Pass.
3755 Richmond Ave.
tonyshouston.com • $$$
For decades, this has been Houston’s lair of flair, but at its core, Tony’s is pure H-Town with a ton of Italian amore and panache. Tony Vallone and his lovely wife, Donna, are always the perfect hosts, but also omnipresent and relentless in ensuring that diners have a perfect evening. No matter who the chef is (and Tony’s has had plenty), the food always thrills. Drama is on display every night, from the star-studded crowd to the spectacular presentations. And neither the staff, the kitchen, nor Tony will miss a beat if you ask for something off the menu, including something as rudimentary as a hamburger. If truffles are in season, order them—you’ll never have a better or more generous portion. And be sure to place your order early for one of the greatest desserts on earth, the Grand Marnier soufflé. Just ask huge fan Shirley MacLaine, a Tony’s regular.
5. Killen’s Steakhouse
2804 S. Main St., Pearland
killenssteakhouse.com • $$
Don’t let the Pearland address steer you away—it’s only 25 minutes south of downtown, traffic willing. Once there, order one of the exceptional cocktails—they make the best Old Fashioned in town, featuring bitters made at home by the kind and knowledgeable sommelier DeeDee. Order the flawless crab cake—99 percent plump, flavor-packed chunks of blue crab. Steaks come in every price range and from all corners of the globe, including a pricy but awe-inspiring Wagyu from Japan’s Kagoshima Prefecture. Save room for the crème brûlée bread pudding, my husband’s favorite Houston dessert. So, has Ronnie Killen achieved his goal of having the best steakhouse in the world? It’s Number One in Houston… ’nuff said!
6. MF Sushi
1401 Binz St #100
mfsushiusa.com • $$$
Chef Chris Kinjo’s omakase is my single-favorite dining experience in Houston. The only better sushi and sashimi I’ve eaten is at 4 a.m. at Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market, and Chef Kinjo flies much of his fish in from Tsukiji. Prepare for course after course of over-the-top flavors such as wagyu beef, truffles, and uni (sea urchin) with just enough extra to send you to the brink of ecstatic blackout. Eating à la carte is more hit-and-miss, due in part to the relentless crowds that keep MF’s gorgeous new digs in the Museum District buzzing.
underbellyhouston.com • $$
Chef Chris Shepherd has become the jovial face of Space City’s liftoff to the top of America’s culinary ladder. At his astounding Underbelly, you not only taste Houston, you absorb it, and you leave with a greater understanding of what makes this town so enthralling, as well as Shepherd’s list of favorite H-Town ethnic bites. He is loyal to locally sourced ingredients, and all of his creations make clear how deserving he was in 2014 when he became the first local chef since 1992 to be awarded a James Beard Foundation Award.
pondichericafe.com • $
I probably eat at Pondicheri more than any place in town. Why? Heavenly breakfasts, lunches, and dinners in an informal, inviting setting from one of the most talented chefs in America, Anita Jaisinghani, and an upstairs Bake Lab that in addition to being a masterful bakery is also part mini-store/cafe/juice bar/tapas bar/takeaway/spice lab. Try the “railway omelet,” filled with keema, sauteed greens, masala, paneer, corn, potato mash, and more, served on a carrot paratha . . . every bite yields eye-rolling surprises. The Tuesday-only fried chicken is legendary. Watch, too, for a delicate galette covered with pears, blueberries, and mint and a sweet besan flour laddu—both among the most delicious baked products I’ve ever eaten. So much goes on in this wonderfully inventive space, which serves as a perfect example of why Houston is America’s most exciting food city.
1302 Nance St.
New American Tasting Menu
oxhearthouston.com • $$$
Yet another tasting-menu-only setup, but Oxheart’s is one you’ll never forget. Chef Justin Yu and his wife, Karen Man, have created a menu heavy on the finest locally sourced ingredients (particularly vegetables), and reservations are among the hardest in town to snag. The setting in the old Warehouse District is edgy and informal, and the experience will leave you with little doubt as to why the Chronicle’s esteemed long-time food critic Alison Cook named Oxheart her top Bayou City eatery for several years in succession.
10. Andes Café
andescafe.com • $
Yes, Chef David Guerrero serves guinea pig (cuy). Head and all, if you’re willing. And yes, it’s damned tasty! But the extensive menu will take you to all parts of South America for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. The hornado (an Ecuadorian specialty of marinated roast pork served with sautéed hominy and a llapingacho—potato cheese cake—in an agrio sauce) is enthralling, as is the silpancho (a Bolivian dish of a milanesa served over rice and roasted potatoes, topped with two eggs and locoto salad). Chef G’s ceviches are the best in town, and if they have the rare concha negra clams from Ecuador, don’t pass them up. And make sure to order anything made with lúcuma, a sultry Peruvian caramel-flavored fruit.
11. Kitchen 713
kitchen713.com • $
Only in Houston could two classically trained and well-traveled African-American chefs (James Haywood and Ross Coleman) set up shop in Houston’s predominately Hispanic Second Ward in a bare-bones former church rec room that forbids consumption of alcohol, serve up incredible mod renditions of soul dishes bearing the flavors of the world, and end up with what might be the most creative kitchen in this wildly creative city. K713 is a gem that grows more precious every day. Turkey neck lettuce wraps topped with cane syrup nuoc cham, followed by fried catfish tikka masala and a candied sweet potato bread pudding? Yes, please!
12. Oporto Fooding House & Wine
125 West Gray
oportomidtown.us • $$
Prepare to be wowed, from the moment you view the breathtaking menu and surroundings to the arrival of one masterful dish after another. These are plates meant to be shared—go with a large group so that you can try as many as possible, all of which feature the flavors and ingredients of Portugal, India, Italy, and of course, Houston.
13. Kenny & Ziggy’s
2327 Post Oak Blvd.
kennyandziggys.com • $
Matzoh, lox, rugelach, challah, and kishkes,
Blintzes, gefilte fish, kasha varneshkes,
Schmaltz, tongue, pastrami—they make my heart sing—
these are a few of my favorite things!
Even die-hard New Yorkers admit that Kenny & Ziggy’s is one of the best Jewish delis on the planet. If I could just have an endless supply of their brined pickles, Romanian pastrami, and cheese blintzes, I’d probably die of a heart attack, but at least I’d die smiling.
arcodoro.com • $$
Maybe Houston’s most underrated restaurant. The flavors are haunting—in the best possible meaning of the word! Order the insalata di cavoli ricci (topped with roasted cauliflower, kale, balsamic sweet peppers, and an extra-virgin olive oil citrus dressing) and the lorighittas con capretto—little braids of Sardinian pasta mixed with tender slices of goat, artichoke hearts, and saffron, and topped with two goat chops (think goat lollipops). The scalloppini ai funghi porcini is succulent, and washed down with either of the two Sardinian reds on the wine list will have you planning an escape to Cagliari.
2040 W. Gray
New Latin American
americasrestaurant.com • $$
Though I miss the Avatar-like treehouse that was the original location on Post Oak, the food at the River Oaks (and Woodlands) location never fails to impress. The Cordúa family hails from Nicaragua, and the flavors of their complex and sumptuous dishes reflect all of Latin America. This restaurant has been a Houston must since the day it opened. And did I mention they serve the mother of all tres leches?
indikausa.com • $$
Chef Anita Jaisinghani scores a Top 30 deuce with her brilliant Indika, nestled in the heart of Montrose. No one has done more to elevate the intricate, explosive flavors of India to new levels of fusion perfection. Even a simple, hearty dish like khichri (rice and lentils) becomes a showstopper in the hands of this talented chef.
giacomosciboevino.com • $
I’ve loved the cooking of chef Lynette Hawkins since she ran La Mora in Montrose, but Giacomo’s is even better. The portions are generous, reasonably priced, and bursting with flavor. One of my fave meals in town is half-size portions of the unforgettable porchetta e fagioli together with the tagliatelle ala bolognese.
18. Peli Peli
pelipeli.com • $$
Holy bobotie! The new Peli Peli at the Galleria is divine! Request the Tour of South Africa—a robust multi-course feast of filet medallions, boerewors sausages, tiger prawns, bunny chow, biltong, and bobotie, and worth every krugerrand. The dramatic setting and lighting add to the exciting atmosphere.
pauliesrestaurant.com • $
Few think of Houston as a haven for great Italian, but look at this Top 30 and think of how many others would place in a Top 100. Paulie’s is one of the most convenient places for a fast, exquisite, and inexpensive meal. Case in point: the Principe Panini, made with the tastiest Italian sausage I’ve had in Houston. Every pasta dish is worth ordering. And if they have Italian wedding cake, don’t dare pass it up.
6652 Southwest Freeway
himalayarestauranthouston.com • $
Houston became a far richer culinary capital the day Chef Kaiser Lashkari decided to move here. Many of his dishes are part of Houston’s culinary lore. Dishes that I would rarely care to order elsewhere (like chicken tikka masala or saag aloo) are masterpieces here. The biryanis, kebabs, dals—everything is full of flavor and originality of the sort that only a few gifted chefs can accomplish. That’s why these favorites have become revered local legends, as Chef Lashkari has become in Houston.
5512 La Branch St.
lucilleshouston.com • $$
Chef Chris Williams has gifted grateful Houstonians with his marvelous take on the dishes of his beloved great-grandmother. (Read her inspiring story on the restaurant’s website.) My husband and I are residents in nearby Third Ward, and our perfect Bayou City evening features a pre-dinner walk through nearby Hermann Park followed by Lucille’s splendid crafted cocktails, an order of great-grandma’s legendary chili biscuits, and any of the other brilliant, soulful offerings on the menu. Watch every jaw in the restaurant drop in awe when a plate of what Chef Williams modestly calls “pork and beans” arrives at your table.
bcnhouston.com • $$$
Since its opening, BCN has been one of the most talked- and raved-about restaurants in town. Prepare for an onslaught of complex, vivacious flavors from one of the most talented and imaginative kitchens that Space City’s ever seen. Many who have experienced the storied Michelin-starred food temples of Spain say that BCN compares favorably. From sublime cocktails to delicate kokotxas (meat from the cheeks and jaw of the hake fish), this place is a pure classic—and classy.
23. Pax Americana
paxamericanahtx.com • $$
Pax Americana on Montrose’s Restaurant Row has become a foodie favorite about as quickly as any place I’ve seen. And why not? The kimchi egg appetizer topped with greens is mind-blowing, and the 30-day in-house dry-aged bone-in pork chop is the best use of pig parts in H-Town since Feast (R.I.P.) closed.
aladdinshouston.com • $
Houston is blessed with countless spectacular eateries representing the cuisines of all parts of the Middle East, and they can be found in all parts of the city, particularly the “Little Beirut” area springing up on and around the Richmond Strip. But deep in the heart of Montrose is the one whose dishes I crave the most. It’s almost impossible to find a more delicious, filling, and nutritious meal for less cash than at Aladdin—and it’s BYOB. The brilliant assortment of mezes and fruit juices will make the pain of finding parking worth it.
25. El Real
elrealtexmex.com • $
The Houston Press’ legendary former critic and Tex-Mex superstar Robb Walsh joined forces with the talents from Reef in Midtown to turn the former Tower Theater into a Tex Mex temple. Everything from the ritas to the tortillas to the frijoles scream authentic, and you’ll find ancient classics here that otherwise would have become as hard to find as a chupacabra. The fajitas are top-notch, and the enchiladas Borunda topped with a sunny-side-up egg is one of those decadent pleasures you’ll only find in H-Town.
26. Local Foods
2424 Dunstan Rd.
houstonlocalfoods.com • $
Convenient, quick, inexpensive, and mind-blowingly delicious dishes made with locally sourced ingredients. Local Foods’ Gulf crab and shrimp sandwich is an H-Town Top-10er, and the always-changing sides (don’t pass up the banana squash slaw) are among the tastiest in town.
27. Lankford Grocery
88 Dennis St.
lankfordgrocery.com • $
Since the 1940s, Miss Eydie Prior and her family have been serving ecstatic H-Towners some of the finest down-home southern food available anywhere. Her breakfast chilaquiles and migas are world-class. Regulars know which days to be there for the unforgettable cheese enchiladas and CFS—early, or they run out. The burgers continue to set the Houston standard, particularly the notorious Grim, topped with mac & cheese, jalapeños, bacon, and a sunny-side-up egg.
28. Saltillo Mexican Kitchen
saltillomexicankitchen.com • $$
I nearly cried when I learned that the magnificent Casa de Caballo was closing in the Montrose space now occupied by El Tiempo on Westheimer. Thankfully, they’re back as Saltillo and serving steaks as delicious as ever. And yes, you can still take the crew and order the unbelievably succulent tapa de lomo, four pounds of masterfully trimmed rib-eye cap. Owner Don Carlos has downsized, but the quality is as high as ever, and manager Luis and bartender Travis (muy lindos!) will make sure you leave as happy as in the old days at Casa.
29. Mockingbird Bistro
mockingbirdbistro.com • $$$
If you want a perfect evening with perfect food, drink, and service, you can’t do much better than romantic Mockingbird. This relaxed yet elegant spot hits an exquisite formal-yet-non-stuffy vibe, and though pricey, you can come early for their fabulous 5-5-5 happy hour (5 dishes and 5 great wines for $5 each) and enjoy one of the city’s finest burgers.
30. Cafe TH
2108 Pease St.
cafeth.com • $
The adorable, charming Minh Nguyen is owner of TH, one of Houston’s grooviest dining locales. This is the place for vegan/veg versions of your Vietnamese faves— but carnivores, don’t panic. The Zombie bánh mì features pretty much everything that can go on a bánh mì, and then some: xiu mai, paté, ham, carrots, bacon(!), chicken, roasted pork, chilis, two fried eggs, cilantro, cucumber, a Minh-special doctored-up sriracha sauce . . . I deserve a pic on the wall just for finishing this massive masterpiece! His bánh bột chiên is even better than the more famous version at Tan Tan. And if you go on a Thursday or Friday night, Minh turns the lights down, turns the groove up, and serves a fabulous home-cooked four-course meal for a fraction of the price that those in other foodie capitals would pay for a similar experience. And it’s BYOB!
Try the 30 places above, and you’ll agree that the H in H-Town stands for Heaven—we truly are America’s Foodtopia.
Nominate your favorite restaurant to be featured in a future issue of OutSmart by emailing [email protected].
John Nechman is an immigration attorney with the Houston law firm of Katine & Nechman L.L.P., as well as an adjunct professor of law at South Texas College of Law. He’s also an inveterate food and H-Town junkie.