Mutt City Masterpieces
John Nechman's 30 favorite dishes in the Houston Area.
Does Houston match up to the Big Apple, Paris, and Tokyo as a global foodtropolis? It depends on how you compare them. We may not have Noma, Eleven Madison Park, or Sukiyabashi Jiro, but we can get to them quickly (thanks to our well-connected airports) and we have the same odds as everyone else in those cities to snag a reservation. And I wouldn’t trade our own Justin Yu’s Theodore Rex, Chris Shepherd’s UB Preserv, Kaiser Lashkari’s Himalaya, or anything from Ronnie Killen for any of those distant choices. (Try finding real-deal Tex-Mex, smoked boudin, crawfish pho, barbacoa tacos, carnitas siumai, affordable oysters, crispy fried catfish, East Texas hot links, CFS, and other soulful TexLaMex dishes in New York City!)
Do we have mezes the equal of Istanbul’s? No, but no one else does, either—and ours are excellent. Does our gumbo or Creole compare with New Orleans? No way, but ours is better than anyone else’s outside of Louisiana, and New Orleans is a delicious five-hour drive away. Dining out in Mutt City is incomparable, undefinable, and more enthralling with every new restaurant opening. How people rank food cities is a matter of preference, but I prefer H-Town.
Here are 30 of my favorite dishes that all reflect our mighty metropolis. (Whittling this down to 30 was like making Imelda Marcos choose her 30 most-favorite pairs of shoes.) So grab a drink (I suggest a potent blue frozen ’rita from El Patio on Westheimer), or if you’re behaving, Irma’s peerless lemonade, and celebrate 30 more reasons to swell with Houston pride.
1. Bò Né
Bò Né Houston, 11169 Bellaire (Bellaire Asian District)
Bò né—a great way to start the day. Few breakfasts satisfy more than this Vietnamese classic of creamy pâté and butter slathered on a fresh-baked Viet-French baguette, a side salad drizzled with soy-sesame dressing, and the all-important cow-shaped comal bearing tender, sizzling chunks of marinated filet mignon, onions, and eggs. Steak & eggs, H-Town style.
2. Katfish & Grits
The Breakfast Klub, 3711 Alabama (Midtown) thebreakfastklub.com
No matter how cold, rainy, or sweltering the weather is, our city’s longest breakfast line is at Marcus Davis’ Breakfast Klub. The dish I order every time is the Katfish & Grits, a perfectly flaky, crispy filet sided with the creamiest grits in town, buttermilk biscuits, and a duo of sunny-side-up eggs, all yearning to be doused in Louisiana hot sauce.
3. Morning Thali
Pondicheri, 2800 Kirby Dr. (Upper Kirby/River Oaks) pondicheri.com
With its progressive take on Indian dishes, Pondicheri draws crowds for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. One of its many brilliant dishes is the breakfast thali, a colorful medley of potato or carrot paratha, saag paneer, uttapam, chutney, curried potatoes, yogurt, lamb keema (I often ask to substitute the creamy dal), and a fried egg. If Chef Anita Jaisinghani is around, beg her to make her khichri (a hearty rice-and-lentils porridge).
4. Quail and Eggs
Goode Company Taqueria, 4902 Kirby Dr., (Lower Kirby/West U.) goodecompany.com/taqueria.asp
Goode Company has deep Houston roots and empire status, but many of its BBQ fans are unaware that they make some of the best breakfasts in town at their taqueria. My favorite is their two plump and succulent mesquite-cooked Bobwhite quails served with eggs, hash browns, and biscuits. It doesn’t get more Texas than that.
APPETIZERS, SOUPS, SALADS & SIDES
5. Boiled Crawfish
Crawfish Shack, 5822 FM 2100 (Crosby) crawfishshack.com
To hell with groundhogs; spring begins when crawdad castles sprout! That’s also my sign to head out to Crawfish Shack in Crosby, the best spot for mudbugs this side of the Sabine River. Take a group and an Igloo full of booze. Add in andouille sausage, potatoes, corn, and mushrooms (truly scrumptious simmered in the boil). The feel is ice house, the music ranges from Journey to Beau Jocque to Waylon & Willie to Selena, and the crowd is everybody in the area who eats to the Bayou City beat.
6. “Carolina Gold” Rice and Butterbeans
Theodore Rex, 1302 Nance St. (Warehouse District) trexhouston.com
Chef Justin Yu’s creative yet approachable Theodore Rex is my favorite restaurant. One glorious night, a group of fellow foodies and I ordered everything on the menu, and every dish we had could have made this list. The menu changes regularly, but a must-order that always appears is the “Carolina Gold” rice and butterbeans cooked in soft butter with crushed garden leaves. Prepare to swoon. If Houston were a restaurant, we’d be Theodore Rex.
7. Crispy Rice Salad
UB Preserv,1609 Westheimer (Montrose) ubpreserve.com
A server at UB Preserv convinced me to order the bland-sounding Crispy Rice Salad. I ended up fighting my husband for every last pellet. Now, whenever we visit, right after ordering one of their stunning cocktails, that salad is the first dish I order. Nobody in town is more dedicated to the story of Houston food than owner/chef Chris Shepherd. Along with chef de cuisine Nick Wong, Shepherd has created a local classic here. For dinner or dim sum, every dish we’ve had has been a stunner.
Papio’s Fusion Deli, 11999 Katy Freeway (Energy Corridor) papios-deli.business.site
Deep within an obscure office building is Papio’s Fusion Deli, where chef Juan Carlos brings a background in science, a European pedigree, and Peruvian upbringing to his trade. His piping-hot beef empanadas, made with finely chopped olives and raisins and topped with a light dusting of powdered sugar, are without equal. Don’t miss any of his other Peruvian dishes, either—particularly his exquisite tamalitos verdes (green tamales) and mind-blowing chicharrón.
9. Oysters Shrimphooley
Gilhooley’s, 222 9th St. (San Leon) facebook.com/gilhooleys
Ramshackle Gilhooley’s is a smoky biker’s bar with a no-kids policy. It’s also home to one of the greatest dishes on America’s Third Coast—plump Gulf oysters grilled in garlic butter and parmesan cheese. What makes them transcendent is the smoky flavor they absorb from the grill’s pecan and oak firewood. If you want shrimp on top (and you do), order the Oysters Shrimphooley.
10. BBQ Brisket
Killen’s BBQ, 3613 E. Broadway (Pearland) killenssteakhouse.com
Area barbecue fans speak of the “B.K. Era” (Before Killen’s). In those days, we enjoyed our heavily sauced barbecue while begrudgingly admitting that the Texas Hill Country was home to the best Q. But then, Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef Ronnie Killen started doing a weekend BBQ service at his Pearland steakhouse, and the rest is history. I’ve eaten at nearly every BBQ place on every Texas Monthly Best BBQ list since the first one came out, and my favorite brisket is at Killen’s. I’m addicted to the massive beef ribs, too.
11. Cheese Coney
JCI—James Coney Island (everywhere) jamesconeyisland.com
In the early ’70s, my dad would take my brothers and me to the original James Coney Island in downtown off of Main Street, and we would join the hungry hordes watching in awe as a line of servers would work their magic over a gigantic grill containing dozens of sizzling wieners. My go-to order then was three Cheese Coneys (a hand-cut steamed bun cradling one of their signature dogs, topped with mustard, “chili sauce,” cheese whiz, and minced onions). Fifty years later, it’s still my order. In fact, if I’m out of town for any appreciable amount of time, my first stop upon return is the closest JCI’s.
12. Facchia di Vecchio
Mandola’s Deli, 4105 Leeland St. (East End) mandolasdeli.com
I had a near-epiphany the first time I tried the Mandola’s Deli faccia di vecchia (which translates to “old woman’s face”). It’s an offbeat take on Sicilian-style pizza—thick crusts topped with fresh tomatoes, spices, herbs, their famous house-made sausage, grilled peppers, and onions. It’s sensational—one of those dishes I can’t get enough of. And it should be a local law that any diner at this cozy, historic locale must save room for a slice of their sublime Italian cream cake.
13. Fiddler on the Roof of Your Mouth (with Swiss Cheese and Chopped Liver)
Kenny & Ziggy’s (Galleria area and Upper Kirby) kennyandziggys.com
You’d have to travel 1,500 miles to find a deli that compares to Kenny & Ziggy’s. Travel 10 times that far, and you still won’t find better pastrami. My favorite sandwich is my own custom creation: the Fiddler on the Roof of Your Mouth (a triple-decker of corned beef, pastrami, and Russian dressing), but with a smear of their decadent chopped liver and melted Swiss cheese added. I call it the “Nechmangabetzky,” a toned-down version of their notorious $85 Zellagabetsky, a sandwich that could feed six (or just me if I skip breakfast).
14. Grilled Pork and Egg Bánh Mì with ChA Giò
Cali Sandwich & Fast Food, 2900 Travis St. (Midtown)
The owner of Cali Sandwich is known by the not-very-original name “The Cali Lady,” and since she first opened many years ago across the street from her current location, she’s brought me the same meal (or told a server to do so)—a full order of her best-in-town cha giò and a marinated grilled pork bánh mi topped with a soft fried egg. I wouldn’t know how to order anything else at Cali, nor would I ever want to.
15. Grim Burger
Lankford Grocery & Market, 88 Dennis St. (Montrose) lankfordgrocery.com
The first time I ever came up with a Top 100 list of restaurants, Lankford topped it. I used to eat here when it actually sold groceries. Chef Eydie Prior is one of my favorite people in the local restaurant scene, and whether it’s her perfectly crafted breakfasts, some of the city’s best enchiladas, or her legendary burgers, she makes sure no one leaves hungry or unsatisfied. My must-have is the Grim Burger—a massive patty topped with gobs of mac & cheese, jalapeños, bacon, and a soft-fried egg. Throw on some tater tots and hope you’re not due for a yearly checkup afterwards.
16. Gulf Shrimp and Crab Sandwich
Local Foods (various locations) houstonlocalfoods.com
Few sandwiches get me drooling more than the Gulf shrimp and crab sandwich from the local chain dedicated to all things local, and appropriately named Local Foods. They stuff a home-baked ciabatta with the best from our coastal waters, topped with locally sourced pickled red onion, tomato, and homemade green-goddess dressing. l usually grab several of the fabulous sides and salads—this is a place where I gleefully eat my veggies.
Adam’s Bite, 7919 Westheimer (Galleria area/Westchase) adamsbite.business.site
Adam’s Bite is a food truck run by Mr. Omar. If you want to see him beam with joy, ask for koshary, the national dish of Egypt and one that my husband and I fell in love with on a recent trip there. Mr. Omar’s version features the usual rice, lentils, and fried onions, but he adds layers of ground beef, chickpeas, pasta, and much more. Pour on the chili tomato and vinegar sauces, and you have my favorite food-truck dish in town. Also order the “Here We Go” rice pudding, topped with ice cream, hazelnuts, and chopped almonds.
18. Smoked Oxtails
Ray’s BBQ Shack,3929 Old Spanish Trail (Third Ward/South Side) raysbbqshack.com
Thursday in Third Ward means one of Houston’s greatest dishes—smoked oxtails by pitmaster extraordinaire Rayford S. Busch. This man knows his smoke! I usually add a fat link of smoked boudin and a Lott’s Link (East Texas-style sausage only found around Houston and the Golden Triangle). And if I feel like eating healthier, I’ll throw on a side of grilled squash/peppers; if not, I get the fried corn on the cob.
19. Texas-Size Steak Sandwich
Champ Burger, 304 Sampson St. (East End) champsburger.net
Since 1963, Champ Burger has been serving the East End with quality fast food. I love the family that runs it, and remember many years ago when the original owner, Mr. Saladino, told me to try their steak sandwich. Texans know that a steak sandwich is a CFS, and no one does a tastier version than Champ Burger. Add on an order of the area’s best onion rings and an orange milkshake (think dreamsicle), and you’ll know why I’d be 20 pounds lighter if not for my regular visits to this quintessential Houston stand.
20. Crab Fried Rice
Tuk-Tuk Crab, 6128 Wilcrest Dr. (Bellaire Asian District) tuktukcrab.com
In a mostly deserted strip center far off the main Bellaire Asian District drag is Tuk Tuk Crab. On my first visit, a cheery woman suggested the crab fried rice, and when it arrived, I gasped. It was a mountain of fragrant, ham-studded rice that could have fed four, covered with gargantuan juicy crab parts and a chives omelet that appeared to have been made with at least four eggs. It was sided with a delightful garlicky, vinegary sweet sauce. Try to save room for dessert so you can order the best halo halo I’ve had outside of the Philippines.
Andes Café, 2311 Canal St. (East End) andescafe.com
Chef David Guerrero’s intimate Andes Café has introduced Houstonians to dishes and ingredients from all over South America, including delectable cuy (guinea pig) and lúcuma (a spectacular Peruvian fruit that tastes like creamy caramel). I crave many dishes on his menu, but my favorite is his hornado, from his native Ecuador and composed of savory roasted pork leg, llapingachos (fried potato cakes), and a sprightly mix of sautéed hominy, shredded greens, and avocado coated in a house-made vinaigrette.
22. Khao Soi Gai
Street Food Thai Market, 1010 W. Cavalcade St. (Heights) streetfoodthaimarket.com
This is the third or fourth reincarnation of a Thai business at this location, but it always ends up being my favorite Thai spot in town. Their khao soi gai consists of a massive bowl of Northern Thai noodles and chicken simmered in a rich coconut curry with the sharp tang of sour mustard greens and unexpected enhancements of fried shallots and diced red onion. There are days I can’t concentrate on anything but this spectacular dish—and also their marvelous mango sticky rice.
23. Le Complet Belge
Café Brussels, 1718 Houston Ave. (First Ward) cafebrusselshouston.com
Those wanting to visit Europe without investing the time and money know the next-best option in Houston is chef Catherine Duwez’s Café Brussels. For over 20 years, I’ve followed Chef Duwez wherever she’s gone, and I still never need a menu. I always get Le Complet Belge, consisting of a pot of the finest mussels money can buy, simmered in white wine and onions and sided with her legendary frites (ask for a side of her homemade mayo, along with a draft Stella Artois, which I tend to have refilled often).
Himalaya, 6652 Southwest Freeway (Gandhi District) himilayasrestauranthouston.com
Chef Kaiser Lashkari is a local icon. His Himalaya is globally renowned, and I could dominate a Top 30 list with selections from his menu. The kitchen, led by his lovely wife Azra, makes some of the most creative dishes in town, blending Desi flavors seamlessly into Third Coast classics. Here, quesadillas are “parathadillas,” made with unleavened flatbread in place of tortillas and stuffed with spicy ground lamb, brisket, or chicken, and onions, masala sauce, cilantro, sour cream—unforgettable Houston fusion at its finest.
25. Porchetta e Fagioli and Tagliatelle
Giacomo’s Cibo e Vino, 3215 Westheimer (River Oaks) giacomosciboevino.com
Chef Lynette Hawkins’ passion for Italian has resulted in a trattoria that manages to be faithfully Italian, yet very Houston. The portions are generous, and everything I’ve had has impressed. I’ll cheat and do a two-fer here—one of my favorite meals is to order half-size portions of her unforgettable porchetta e fagioli and the tagliatelle alla Bolognese.
26. Roosevelt Special
El Real Tex Mex Café,1201 Westheimer (Montrose)
Only in Houston do I regularly find Tex-Mex places that serve heated salsa (so much tastier than when it’s cold). And when I ask for eggs on my enchiladas, I never get the funny stares that I get in other cities. My favorite enchiladas with eggs is El Real Tex Mex’s Roosevelt Special (named for a dish at a place in Fort Worth that made it at the request of president Franklin Roosevelt, although they thought he was weird to order it). This special also comes with a chalupa and a taco. A second must-order dish at this temple to Tex-Mex is the Borunda stacked enchiladas—topped with an egg, of course.
27. Bayou Goo
House of Pies (Upper Kirby and Galleria) houseofpies.com
Any time of the day or night (but best appreciated after the clubs have closed), the beloved “House of Guys” serves up splendid diner fare and eye candy as well as my favorite pie, the legendary Bayou Goo. How can anyone resist a pecan crust topped with sweet cream cheese, vanilla custard swirled with chocolate chunks, whipped cream, and chocolate shavings?
28. Crème Brûlée Bread Pudding
Killen’s Steakhouse (Pearland and The Woodlands) killenssteakhouse.com
Chef Ronnie Killen makes a second appearance on this list because my husband calls Killen’s crème brûlée bread pudding his favorite dessert in the world. It’s complex without being overly sweet or dense. It’s fruity, flan-ny (if that’s a word), buttery, tart . . .you just have to try it. And make sure to order his best-on-earth carrot cake, too.
29. Grand Marnier Soufflé
Tony’s, 3755 Richmond Ave. (Greenway Plaza) tonyshouston.com
Throughout my five decades in Houston, Tony’s has been where the stars shine brightest. Impeccable service and food make this one of the worthiest splurges in town. The mandatory order is the Grand Marnier soufflé. Once you try this luscious, billowy, mini-Astrodome of a dessert, you’ll see why Shirley MacLaine orders one for herself every time she dines here.
30. Maple Sweet Potato Cheesecake
Ester’s Cajun Café and Soul Food, 5204 Yale St. (Independence Heights) esterscajunsoul.com
Our proximity to Louisiana is why Houston has some of the tastiest soul food in America. We’re blessed with Creole-Cajun soul with a lot of Texas smoke mixed in. No one in America has what we have, and no one in Houston serves it better than Ester’s. If they’re serving their stunning Maple Sweet Potato Cheesecake, I’ll eat a slice and take a few more home—always graciously but reluctantly leaving some for the other diners.
This article appears in the April 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine.