From authentic Vietnamese food to some of the state’s best Tex-Mex and barbeque, Houston is on its way to becoming one of the country’s great restaurant meccas. Thanks to our cultural diversity, you can find just about any cuisine imaginable somewhere within the city’s 669 square miles. With so many great options to choose from, OutSmart’s annual dining guide—featuring chef recommendations—is a great way to zero in on this year’s must-try eateries.
Urban Eats bistro + bar + market
3414 Washington Avenue
Husbands and restauranteurs Levi Rollins and Eric Muñoz wanted to create a unique eatery in Houston inspired by their worldwide travels. So in 2014, they launched Urban Eats—an all-in-one epicurean market, patisserie, deli, bodega, coffee shop, bistro, and bar.
The shop’s comfy gourmet fare is approachable and delicious. After noting that Urban Eats’ menu is jam-packed with great options, Rollins says OutSmart readers must try the Fried Green Tomato BLT Signature Sliders, French Onion Mac & Cheese, Bourbon Maple Pork Chop, Green Goodness Salad, and the Fire Roasted Artichoke with Bucheron Toast. Two underrated items he thinks readers should give a chance include the Buttermilk Fried Chicken Salad, which is full of healthy ingredients (especially if you choose grilled instead of fried chicken, and the Pomodoro Primavera, a locally sourced gnocchetti pasta from Della Casa Pasta, tossed with seasonal veggies, wilted greens, heirloom tomatoes, and a delicious citrus and olive-oil sauce. Or take the Pomodoro Primavera to the next level by adding grilled shrimp, chicken, or salmon, Rollins suggests.
Rollins and Muñoz’s love of art is just as strong as their love of food. Their restaurant regularly hosts art pop-ups, and every three months their walls are redecorated with new creations by a featured local artist. To further support Houston’s artists, the couple takes no commission on the generated art sales. From April through June, Urban eats will showcase the work of Naz Kaya, who uses vibrant colors, distinct shapes, and complex geometry in her paintings.
Urban Eats, which is open seven days a week (hours vary), has not relaxed its COVID-19 protocols since Governor Abbott stopped requiring masks in March. Social distancing is still enforced at Urban Eats, and both staff and customers are required to wear masks. The restaurant is open at 30 percent of capacity in the dining room, 50 percent in the market, and 100 percent outdoors.
Giacomo’s cibo e vino
3215 Westheimer Road
This neighborhood cafe and wine bar specializes in small plates of hot and cold antipasti. All of its all-natural, made-from-scratch items are perfect for sharing, mixing, and matching. But what really sets Giacomo’s apart from other Italian-American restaurants is its many international influences. Dishes are inspired not only by Italy’s various regions, but also by the flavors of North Africa, France, and Spain.
The restaurant is currently serving a limited menu featuring its best-selling items. Lynette Hawkins, Giacomo’s esteemed owner and chef, recommends the Orecchiette Giorgione—a pasta with spicy lamb meatballs, rapini (a bitter green in the turnip family), garlic, extra-virgin olive oil, broth, and a pinch of crushed red pepper, topped with a dollop of goat cheese—or the Pappardelle al Telefono (wide noodles in a sauce of garlic and oil, cherry tomatoes, tomato purée, basil, and mozzarella). For dessert, folks should go with an underrated option: Panna Cotta al Yogurt, a cream and yogurt gelatin pudding infused with vanilla, cinnamon, and lemon zest served with a seasonal sauce. Another one of Hawkins’ sweet suggestions is the Dolce di Stagione, a seasonal dessert that changes monthly. All proceeds from that dessert are being donated to the Rescued Pets Movement, an organization that relocates homeless dogs and cats to no-kill shelters, foster homes, and forever homes.
Currently open at 50 percent capacity Tuesdays through Saturdays from 4 to 9 p.m., Giacomo’s current COVID-19 safety protocols include social distancing, placing tables six feet apart, and requiring masks for both staff and customers.
From steak nights to private events, no event is too large or too small for local catering company Free Grillin. Chef Michelle, the owner of the business, graduated at the top of her class from the Art Institute of Houston with a degree in culinary arts. She later took the helm at Sur La Table in River Oaks, teaching curious foodies the fine art of cooking with style. Today, she specializes in all things grilled, and in fresh farm-to-table delights.
Free Grillin can handle all of your catering needs, and it even offers cooking classes. You can also find the three-person culinary team at three local steak nights throughout the month. Catch the pop-up kitchen every Thursday night at the LGBTQ bar George in Montrose, every first Friday of the month at the queer-friendly Bailson Brewery in Rice Village, and once a month at the LGBTQ Rumors Bar and Grill in Galveston.
Chef Michelle explains what separates Free Grillin’s steak nights from others around town: she constantly pushes the envelope with her menu by offering four regular entrées—ribeye, filet mignon, pork chops, and salmon—along with special rotating items such as lamb chops, barbeque meat loaf, grilled chicken, and grilled tuna. The company also hand-cuts all of its meat and makes its own rubs and seasonings—which are set to go on sale later this year.
While one of the most popular menu items is the Ribeye, a 14-oz ribeye seasoned with Free Love Steak Rub, cooked to order and basted with butter, Chef Michelle urges folks to try the Double Cut Bone-In Pork Chops, a tender 8-oz herb-encrusted filet, cooked to order and topped with your choice of bleu cheese butter, pink peppercorn-truffle butter, or garlic herb butter. Although it’s sometimes overlooked, she says once people try the Ribeye, they’re guaranteed to love it.
Those who are interested in ordering from Free Grillin on a steak night can schedule a contactless pickup ahead of time, or order in person inside the bar. This, in addition to wearing face masks, gloves, sanitizing constantly, and distributing individually-wrapped plasticware, is how the business is keeping customers safe from COVID-19.
David Alcorta Catering
Based in Spring Branch, out chef David Alcorta’s company offers complete catering services for all types of gatherings in the Greater Houston area. His professional and courteous team is made up of event managers, event captains, servers, and TABC-certified bartenders who work hard to add a uniquely customized touch to your special occasion.
The company’s catering menu is extensive, offering dozens of appetizers, entrées, and sides. Every item—from the Crab-Stuffed Mushrooms to the Bacon Wrapped Pork Tenderloin and the Plantain Crusted Chicken—is enhanced with seasonings, flavorful sauces, and an artful presentation. And don’t miss out on the desserts. Alcorta, a pastry chef who graduated from the Art Institute of Houston, also creates custom cakes that are perfectly baked and decorated.
In addition to its full-service event catering, David Alcorta Catering also offers food delivery and pickup. The business vows to continue keeping staff and customers safe by requiring workers to wear masks and gloves while in the kitchen and at the catered events. All cooking equipment is sanitized before and after each use.
3600 Kirby Drive
This bakery and cafe has been a staple in Houston for over 25 years. Award-winning pastry chef Sara Brook founded the company in 1995 with her 4-year-old daughter, Jennifer, by her side. Since opening, Dessert Gallery has been consistently recognized for its confections by a wide variety of Houston publications. The business is also known in Houston’s queer community for its longtime support. Every year during June Pride Month, the bakery sells LGBTQ-themed pastries to raise funds for service organizations such as the Montrose Center.
Throughout the rest of the year, Dessert Gallery offers a variety of treats—from layer cakes to pies and cookies—that are made to satisfy your sweet tooth. While Brook says she’s a big fan of all of the bakery’s hand-made treats, her favorite right now might be the Brookie, a bar made from marbled layers of brownie batter and chocolate-chip cookie dough. An underrated item she thinks folks should try out is the Toffee-licious Cake, a layered yellow cake infused with espresso and kahlua, and covered with cream-cheese frosting and toffee bits.
Prior to the pandemic, Dessert Gallery, which is open seven days a week (hours vary), provided indoor seating where patrons could enjoy their pastries and coffees. However, to keep staff and customers safe from COVID-19, the bakery currently offers only takeout, curbside pickup, and contactless delivery.
Gloria’s Latin Cuisine
2616 Louisiana St. (Midtown location)
Savor time-honored recipes and discover mouthwatering Latin flavors in a casual-chic setting at Gloria’s Latin Cuisine. The restaurant offers Salvidorian-inspired appetizers, entrées, desserts, and award-winning cocktails to round out your culinary experience.
Brian C. Penrod, Gloria’s senior director of marketing, suggests diners try some of the restaurant’s staple menu items such as Gloria’s Super Special, which includes one chicken tamale and one pupusa with a side of yuca, fried plantain, rice, and black beans. Folks who are interested in more daring items should order the Tamales—three handmade Salvadorian tamales wrapped and steamed in banana leaves, gently spiced and stuffed with chicken, potatoes, and bell pepper—or the Churrasco Típico, a grilled 8-oz sirloin steak served with a side of Spanish rice, black bean soup, fried plantains, yuca, and chimichurri. For a drink to pair your meal with, try the House Margaritas (frozen or on the rocks) or the new Cantaloupe Jalapeño Margarita.
And there’s good news for Gloria’s lovers on the west side of town: the restaurant chain has opened a new location in Katy. This third Houston-area location features a spacious interior with expansive use of natural light, Salvadorian-inspired art, an outdoor patio, and an upscale bar.
Gloria’s is open at 100 percent capacity seven days a week (hours vary). Staff members are required to wear masks for COVID-19 safety, and customers are encouraged to wear masks upon entering the establishment.
Acme Oyster House
1201 Westheimer Road (Coming soon!)
This century-old New Orleans seafood institution is making its debut in Houston this month. The restaurant will be housed in the historic Tower Theater building that was most recently occupied by El Real. This is Acme’s largest location, according to food and beverage manager Tony Rodrigue. But no matter which location customers visit—from Louisiana to Florida and Alabama—Rodrigue promises that you’ll always be treated with top-notch Southern hospitality.
Rodrigue says diners must try Acme’s famous Chargrilled Oysters—sizzling oysters saturated in an herb butter sauce and topped with a special blend of cheese. He also suggests folks order the Acme Special Po-Boy (a hot, debris-style roast beef, ham, and turkey sandwich) and the Fried Alligator (double-tenderized alligator meat served with creamy sriracha aioli sauce). More adventurous eaters, he says, should get the Butter Bean Plate—butter beans cooked with shrimp and tasso over rice, with a choice of hot sausage, fried fish, or smoked sausage.
While Acme’s new Houston location wasn’t open for business at press time, Rodrigue offered us a sneak preview of the establishment. It looks a bit more modern than their other locations, but it still makes you feel like you’re in South Louisiana. There will also be a projector in the middle of the restaurant to show sports events on the giant theater screen. Acme is also launching a small Houston-exclusive taco menu featuring tacos inspired by some of the restaurant’s most popular items. As far as COVID-19 safety protocols go, the establishment is planning to require all staff and customers to wear face masks.
This article appears in the April 2021 edition of OutSmart magazine.