This year’s winners serve up fabulous food with a side of H-Town Pride.
By John Nechman
There’s something gloriously, uproariously queer about Houston’s dining scene. It gives us our edge, it’s hard to define, and it’s undeniably present.
It’s transgressive, ebullient, explosive, unpredictable, and captivating—but because we’re surrounded by it and it’s part of our DNA, the rest of the world celebrates the gastronomic gift of “Mutt City” cuisine more than we do.
Still, we all know that Houston’s food scene is one of the best reasons to call this hard-to-peg sprawl of ours home.
We’re cowboy/cowgirl. Cajun. Every country from Afghanistan to Zaire. Some say we don’t have an identity or iconic dishes like our friends in New Orleans or Philly. But is that really the case?
We (or rather, our own Mama Ninfa) gave the world fajitas. I don’t think I’ve ever met a Houstonian who doesn’t have a favorite bánh mi place. We’ve been gleefully scarfing down chef Hugo Ortega’s grasshoppers and flying ants for years.
Crawfish season excites every community here, and boil recipes know no borders. Boudin kolaches? Crawfish phở with Cajun seasonings? We have Tex-Mex, Tex-Cajun, and Tex-Soul, but no single style dominates our indomitable cuisine.
So why is H-Town food getting its star turn? Because we are the America of tomorrow, today. We are the trendsetters. Unlike most cities with fairly fixed identities, we are in the astounding position of being able to be anything we want to be, incorporating the best of the world into our vivacious mix. It just doesn’t get more exciting than that.
This dynamism is giving all of us new reasons to be Houston Proud. We’re also better at appreciating the base that supports our disparate mix. Farmers markets are emerging in every neighborhood, and Houstonians are discovering that our rich soil is capable of growing virtually anything.
We’re embracing the bounty of the Gulf, and doing more to protect our waters and reefs. Local purveyors and brewers are opening every day, and suddenly the concept of farm-to-table is part of our culinary lexicon.
Even a catastrophe like Harvey (which could have annihilated other cities’ food scenes) resulted in overwhelming generosity from every corner of Houston, including local restaurateurs and food suppliers. We showed the world what it means to be Houston Strong and the City of Heart.
For the last few years, I have enjoyed compiling and sharing a list of the best places to eat in the Houston area. My initial list of 30 turned into 100 last year, including eateries in adjoining counties (since our scene is too big for just one county!).
But this year I wanted to celebrate what makes us special, so I took a more Houston-centric approach. Making this year’s list required more than just serving great food. I wanted to see Houston Pride—support for local purveyors and brewers, new dishes that could become icons, and an involvement in and a commitment to this community.
While non-Houston chains, or eateries serving dishes from other parts of the globe, were still considered, preference was given to those that have shown dedication to contributing to our mesmerizing mosaic.
Do you participate in Houston Restaurant Weeks? Do the actions of your business show that you are welcoming to all in our great community? Are you invested in Houston Strong? If so—and if your food is amazing—I had a place on this year’s list for you.
And, as for Houston’s purported lack of iconic dishes, I beg to differ. In the most diverse city in America, we simply have more iconic dishes than most cities. I’ve taken a stab at creating a list of some dishes that are uniquely ours, having sprung up from the Mutt City magic. Just like Houston, this list will evolve and grow over time.
This year is special—25 years of OutSmart. It’s a reason to celebrate, and in Houston, that inevitably involves eating.
Something deliriously, exuberantly queer is taking place in our great town. There’s never been a better time to be Houston Proud.
1. Theodore Rex (Mutt City)
1302 Nance St. – trexhouston.com $$
If I had to choose who from H-Town to put up in the World Cup of Cooking against the likes of Grant Achatz, René Redzepi, and Massimo Bottura, the golden spatula would go to Chef Justin Yu. He’s proven time and again that he’s capable of anything—without pretense and with incredible flair. Even the most modest of vegetables become unforgettable in this kitchen. Though it’s often the hardest reservation in town to snag, if you get one, bonhomie and egalitarianism will reign. I never thought he could top his miraculous Oxheart, but to experience Houston on a plate, head to T-Rex.
2. Killen’s BBQ (Barbecue)
3613 East Broadway St., Pearland
Always packed, and always worth the drive. Think of it this way: at Austin’s Franklin, you’ll wait four times longer for BBQ that cannot match Ronnie Killen’s, and an open keg of Lone Star makes the wait even more bearable. If they’re serving chicken-fried steak or fried chicken, you won’t find better. Although a full beef rib might come out pricey, it will feed three, and when you see one on a neighboring table, you’re going to kick yourself if you haven’t ordered one. And your dog will love you even more.
3. Himalaya (Pakistani)
6652 Southwest Freeway
When you dine at chef Kaiser Lashkari’s Himalaya, don’t bother to look at the overwhelming menu. Just ask the chef to take care of the table. The amount of food you’ll get, the breathtaking quality, and the absurdly low cost will show you why this has been Desi Central in this part of the country for decades. And to make the meal even more compelling, Himalaya is BYOB (except during Ramadan). Chef Lashkari has come up with his own spirited renditions of such Southern staples as chicken-fried steak, fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, and smoked brisket. They are now a legendary part of Houston’s culinary history.
4. Kitchen 713 (Asian-inspired Southern)
Chefs James Haywood and Ross Coleman, two military journeymen, have created one of the most riveting menus in town, combining the soulful dishes of the South with ingredients from around the globe. Here, masala-fried chicken and waffles match up with black-vinegar-braised oxtails and hoe cakes topped with labne and house-cured salmon. Sunday brunch is legendary, as are the powerful spirits on the well-curated cocktail list. The 713 is what Houston is all about.
5. Pondicheri (New Indian)
Always fresh, exciting, and welcoming—Pondicheri is a perfect stop for breakfast, lunch, and dinner—or takeaway from the wonderfully inventive bake lab upstairs. The ambience is informal but engaging, and the food is ethereal and reflective of the seamless fusion that characterizes our city’s food. Chef Anita Jaisinghani has been enthralling Houston diners since the day she first started serving us at her groundbreaking Indika.
6. STQ (Houstonian/Steaks)
2231 South Voss
STQ is the restaurant every city wishes it could have. It offers superb food to suit every taste, and no pretentiousness. Chef Ronnie Killen, who trained at the Cordon Bleu in France, has created a spot where spectacular steaks and wine may draw a lot of attention, but you’ll still be treated like a star whether you order a Mishima Ranch Wagyu filet or one of their excellent burgers and an iced tea.
7. The Pass and Provisions (New American and Tasting Menu)
Two restaurants in one, and both rank among the best Houston has to offer. Chefs Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan have established themselves as H-Town superstars, and we’ve been cheering them on ever since. If you do the tasting menu at The Pass, order every possible course—you won’t regret it.
8. Giacomo’s (Italian)
Chef Lynette Hawkins has been part of the Houston culinary scene for decades, and we’re all the better for it. Her Giacomo’s has allowed us to experience the finest of Italy—all made with top-quality local ingredients and at remarkably affordable prices.
9. Rainbow Lodge (New American)
2011 Ella Blvd.
This 100-year-old log cabin set on a bayou in the heart of the Heights has been called Houston’s most romantic restaurant, but it can also take its place as one of our best places to eat. Expect wild game and regional seafood paired with Texas Gulf Coast flair. If you haven’t been here since your high school prom, go now. The Lodge is quintessential Houston, and has never been better.
10. Local Foods (Houstonian)
2424 Dunstan Road
Local Foods may be a chain, but it’s our chain, and every location hits the right notes. Each sandwich and side is made with care and local ingredients. Order a combination of a gulf crab and shrimp sandwich with a banana squash slaw, and rejoice in what it means to be a Houstonian.
11. Kata Robata (Japanese) 3600 Kirby $$$
12. Cafe TH (Vietnamese) 2108 Pease St. $
13. Doris Metropolitan (Israeli Steaks) 2815 S. Shepherd $$$
14. Tony’s (Italian) 3755 Richmond Ave. $$$
15. Fields & Tides (Houstonian) 705 E. 11th St. $$
16. Xochi (Oaxaca, Mexican) 1777 Walker St. $$
17. Killen’s Steakhouse (Steaks) 2804 S. Main St., Pearland $$$
18. Presidio (Houstonian) 911 W. 11th St. $$
19. State of Grace (American Texan) 3258 Westheimer $$
20. Andes Café (South American) 2311 Canal $$
21. Roost (Global Eclectic) 1972 Fairview $$
22. MF Sushi (Japanese) 1401 Binz $$$
23. Rudy & Paco’s (Central/South American) 2028 Postoffice St., Galveston $$$
24. One Fifth (Eclectic) 1658 Westheimer $$$
25. Paulie’s (Italian) 1834 Westheimer $
26. Pax Americana (New American) 4319 Montrose $$
27. B&B Butchers & Restaurant (Steaks) 1814 Washington Ave. $$$
28. Cureight (Global Tasting Menu) 24 Waterway Ave., The Woodlands $$$
29. Brennan’s (French Creole) 3300 Smith St. $$$
30. Peli Peli (South African) 5085 Westheimer $$
31. El Real (Tex Mex) 1201 Westheimer $
32. Nancy’s Hustle (New American) 2704 Polk St. $$
33. Cafe Annie (New Southwest) 1800 Post Oak Blvd. $$$
34. Cafe Brussels (Belgian) 1718 Houston Ave. $$
35. Lucille’s (Modern Southern) 5512 La Branch St. $$
36. Sud Italia (Italian) 2347 University Blvd. $$
37. Kenny & Ziggy’s (Deli) 2327 Post Oak Blvd. $
38. BCN (Spanish) 4210 Roseland $$$
39. Oporto Fooding House & Wine (Portuguese) 125 West Gray $$
40. Lankford Grocery (Texas) 88 Dennis St. $
41. Harold’s in the Heights (Southern Creole) 350 W. 19th St. $$
42. Lucienne (Upscale Mediterranean) 1070 Dallas St. $$$
43. Killen’s Burgers (Burgers) 2804 S. Main St., Pearland $
44. Original Ninfa’s (Tex Mex) 2704 Navigation $$
45. Uchi (Japanese) 904 Westheimer $$$
46. Cajun Greek (Cajun Greek Seafood) 2226 61st St., Galveston $$
47. Dish Society (New American) 5740 San Felipe $$
48. Aladdin (Middle Eastern) 912 Westheimer $
49. Benjy’s (New American) 2424 Dunstan and 5922 Washington Ave. $$
50. Al Aseel Grill and Cafe (Middle Eastern) 8619 Richmond Ave. $$
51. Caracol (Mexican-Inspired Seafood) 2200 Post Oak Blvd. $$
52. Good Dog Houston (Hot Dogs) 903 Studewood and 1312 W. Alabama $
53. Gilhooley’s (Seafood) 222 9th St. $$
54. The Conservatory (Food Hall-Houston Businesses) 1010 Prairie St. $
55. Aqui (Modern Filipino) 520 Westheimer $$
56. Hugo’s (Mexican) 1600 Westheimer $$
57. Gaido’s (Seafood) 3828 Seawall Blvd., Galveston $$
58. Habanera and the Gringo (Mexican) 9902 Gulf Freeway, South Houston $$
59. Roka Akor (Japanese Steaks/Sushi) 2929 Weslayan $$$
60. The Saltwater Grill (Seafood) 2017 Postoffice St., Galveston $$
61. Ohn Korean Eatery (Korean) 9630 Clarewood Dr., Bellaire Asian District $$
62. Steve’s Landing (Seafood) 1290 Bay Vue Rd., Crystal Beach $$
63. Mala Sichuan (Chinese) 9348 Bellaire Blvd. and 1201 Westheimer $$
64. Southern Goods (Southern) 632 W. 19th St. $$
65. Crawfish & Noodles (Vietnamese Cajun) 11360 Bellaire Blvd., Bellaire $$
66. Pinkerton’s (BBQ) 1504 Airline Dr. $
67. Flip ’n Patties (Filipino) 1809 Eldridge Parkway $
68. Star Fish Houston (Seafood) 191 Heights Blvd. $$
69. The Grove (New American) 1611 Lamar St. $$
70. Potente (Italian) 1515 Texas Ave. $$$
71. Esther’s Cajun Cafe & Soul Food (Cajun Soul) 5204 Yale $$
72. Coltivare (Italian) 3320 White Oak Drive $$
73. Cuchara (Mexican) 214 Fairview St. $$
74. Benno’s on the Beach (Cajun Seafood) 1200 Seawall Blvd., Galveston $$
75. Saltillo Mexican Kitchen (Steaks, Mexican) 5427 Bissonnet, Bellaire $$
76. Kat’s BBQ (Barbecue) 3813 FM 646 Rd. N., Santa Fe $
77. Burger-chan (Burgers) 5 Greenway Plaza $
78. Américas (New Central/South American) 2040 W. Gray and 21 Waterway, The Woodlands $$
79. Cleburne Cafeteria (Upper Kirby/West U) 3606 Bissonnet St. $
80. Jaxton’s (Italian French) 9955 Barker Cypress Rd., Cypress $$
81. Tony Mandola’s (Cajun Gulf Seafood) 1212 Waugh Dr. $$
82. Ritual (Smoked Meats/Southern) 602 Studewood St. $$
83. Riel (New American/Canadian/Ukrainian) 1927 Fairview St. $$
84. Urban Eats (New American) 3414 Washington Ave. $$
85. Number 13 (Steaks and Seafood) 7809 Broadway St., Galveston $$$
86. Shri Balaji Bhavan (Indian) 5655 Hillcroft $
87. Yauatcha (Chinese Dim Sum) 5045 Westheimer Road $$
88. State Fare Kitchen & Bar (Southern) 947 Gessner, Memorial City $$
89. Da Marco (Italian) 1520 Westheimer $$$
90. Bayou & Bottle (New American) 1300 Lamar St., Four Seasons Hotel $$
91. Liberty Kitchen (New American) 1050 Studewood St. $$
92. Brandani’s (Italian) 3340 FM 1092 Road, Missouri City $$
93. Nam Giao (Vietnamese) 6938 Wilcrest, Bellaire $
94. Max’s Wine Dive (Gourmet Comfort Food) 4720 Washington Ave. and others $$
95. Fielding’s Wood Grill (American/Grill) 1699 Research Forest Dr., The Woodlands $$
96. Marini’s Empanadas (Argentinean) 10001 Westheimer $
97. Ray’s BBQ (Barbecue Soul Seafood) 3929 Old Spanish Trail $
98. eculent (New American Tasting Menu) 709 Harris Ave., Kemah $$$
99. Teotihuacán (Mexican) 4624 Irvington and other locations $
100. Gourmand Kitchen (American Contemporary) 9818 Fry Road, Cypress $$
This article appears in the April 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine.