By Vickie An
Houston has been garnering its fair share of (well-deserved) attention in recent years as an essential destination for people who love to eat. And it’s no wonder why, what with a growing and globally inspired culinary landscape that’s as diverse in its offerings as the people who call the Bayou City home. These days, the city is hailed as much for its garlicky, buttery Viet-Cajun crawfish as it is for its tender, perfectly smoked Texas barbecue beef brisket and fresh seafood from the Gulf. And with several award-winning chefs at the helm of some of Houston’s most popular kitchens, you know you’re going to be in good hands.
While there are just too many excellent restaurants and too many delectable dishes to put every single one on this list, we’ve compiled a cross-section of picks we think showcase the city’s myriad cultures. Here are 15 noteworthy dishes you must try in Houston.
The dish: Nancy cakes
Owned by Sean Jensen and executive chef Jason Vaughan, this unpretentious, award-winning neighborhood bistro has been serving high-end fare in East Downtown since late 2017 – and has been a favorite of Houstonians and restaurant critics from its debut onward. It’s easy to see why with an inviting menu in which the appetizers and small plates are as inviting as the mains.
One of those must-try small plates? The Nancy Cakes. These pillowy griddlecakes – made with house-ground corn meal – are topped with slightly sweet, slightly tangy cultured butter, chives, and beautiful orange pearls of smoked trout roe.
Bonus dish: Don’t leave without sampling pastry and sous chef Julie Doran’s irresistibly fluffy, crustless Parmesan cheesecake. This divine dessert uses nutty Sarvecchio Parmesan from Wisconsin and is served with a generous pour of honey and a good sprinkle of spicy coarse black pepper.
The dish: Braised oxtails
Executive chef Chris Williams and his brother, Ben, opened this Southern restaurant in the heart of the Museum District in 2012 as a tribute to their great-grandmother, Lucille B. Smith, one of the first Black entrepreneurs in Texas and the culinary trailblazer behind the nation’s first all-purpose hot-roll mix. Today, Chris Williams and chef de cuisine Khang Hoang serve up some of Lucille’s most legendary recipes along with their own innovative interpretations of Southern classics.
In our humble opinion, the hearty and tender braised oxtails served with spicy-cheesy serrano cheddar grits, fire-roasted caponata, and oxtail jus is comfort food at its finest. Pair it with Lucille’s famous chili biscuits – the same ones once served to Martin Luther King Jr. and Eleanor Roosevelt – and you’ve got a delicious meal that spans the generations.
The dish: Steaks au jus
Simple, reliable, and refined classic American and Southern Italian-inspired fare: That’s the primary focus of chef Lance Fegen’s namesake restaurant, which launched in spring 2021. The Studewood Street locale in the Heights – which formerly housed the original Liberty Kitchen – has served as a home base for Fegen for the past decade. And so, when the chef and his partners at F.E.E.D. TX Restaurant Group sold the Liberty Kitchen brand in 2020, they held onto the space with plans to build upon Fegen’s long history of serving the neighborhood.
The steaks au jus – choose from a 9-ounce outside skirt steak or a 9-ounce filet mignon – exemplify everything Fegen’s aiming to achieve here. Sometimes there’s nothing better than a perfectly cooked steak served solo on a plate, swimming in its own delicious juices. Unassuming in its presentation, but masterfully executed.
4. Brothers Taco House
The dish: Barbacoa tacos
This family-owned East Downtown taqueria – recognizable to all by its bright pink-and-green exterior – has been feeding hungry Houstonians since 2003. And trust us when we say their massive breakfast tacos, stuffed with any combination of egg, chicharrones en salsa verde, chorizo, or picadillo con papas and wrapped in a warm, freshly made flour tortilla is enough to get any sleepy-eyed worker out of bed.
It’s hard to choose a favorite when everything here is seriously a winner, but you’ll never go wrong with the juicy slow-cooked barbacoa or the savory-smoky al pastor.
The dish: Lobster pot pie
Before putting down roots in Houston with wife Victoria Pappas Bludorn (the daughter of Chris Pappas, founder of the Pappas restaurant empire), Aaron Bludorn enjoyed a lengthy stint as the executive chef of New York’s Café Boulud. Now with his Space City debut, the acclaimed chef takes his extensive experience and pours it into a charismatic, seasonally rotating menu of French-inspired New American fare.
Especially worth splurging on is the lobster pot pie. Bludorn’s luxurious take on this American classic is served tableside and features a buttery, flaky housemade pastry shell filled with large chunks of fresh lobster meat and seasonal vegetables in a decadent bisque topped with crème fraiche. (That said, Bludorn’s spaghetti with uni comes a close second.)
The dish: Marinated mussels
The team behind Better Luck Tomorrow – bar mogul Bobby Heugel (Anvil, Tongue-Cut Sparrow) and James Beard Award-winning chef Justin Yu (Oxheart, Theodore Rex) – opened this Heights gem to wide acclaim in 2019. Executive chef-partner Mark Clayton and co-chef Drew Gimma run the show in the kitchen, serving up inventive dishes described as “European with American touches.”
The marinated mussels have been a favorite of diners right from the start. This imaginative dish features plump escabeche-marinated mussels, “calico” beans and bonito aioli served atop a thick slice of grilled bread. That said, we’re also big fans of the decadent French cheeseburger, made with a stout beef patty enveloped in melted raclette cheese and nestled between a house-baked bun, an exemplar of the form.
The dish: Cacio e pepe
This rustic trattoria by Ryan Pera and Morgan Weber – the duo behind Agricole Hospitality, which also bestowed upon us Revival Market, Eight Row Flint, and Indianola, among others – has been charming Houstonians since 2014 with its wood-fired pizzas and comforting Italian cuisine made with produce fresh from the backyard garden.
Your immediate leanings might be toward the pizza – and don’t get us wrong, the pizzas are always worth getting here – but the real standout is the cacio e pepe. This pasta dish is assembled with just four main ingredients: spaghetti, freshly cracked Tellicherry peppercorns, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and olive oil. Don’t mistake its simplicity for a lack of depth or deliciousness. After all, there’s a reason its devotees are willing to wait to score a steaming bowl.
The dish: Texas Gulf shrimp & stone-ground cheese grits
A Houston institution since 1983, Backstreet Cafe is where James Beard Award-winning chef Hugo Ortega cut his teeth in the restaurant business, starting out as a dishwasher and busboy before becoming a line cook and eventually the executive chef and owner, along with wife Tracy Vaught. The pair have gone on to build a restaurant empire that now includes the equally acclaimed Hugo’s, Caracol, and Xochi. But Backstreet Cafe, with its gorgeous New Orleans-style patio and constantly updated menu, keeps loyal diners coming back for more.
One dish that never disappoints? The Texas Gulf shrimp and stone-ground cheese grits. Ortega sources ingredients for this Southern comfort classic locally, with shrimp fresh from the Gulf and cornmeal from Homestead Gristmill in Waco. Green onions, crispy leeks, and cheese bring it all home.
9. Truth Barbecue
The dish: Brisket
This revered barbecue hotspot originally hails from Brenham, Texas, where it started as a small roadside shack in 2015, before word inevitably got out about pitmaster Leonard Botello IV’s brisket-smoking prowess. After two patio expansions at the original location, Botello opened this second, sprawling spot in Houston to the utter delight of the city’s innumerable barbecue enthusiasts.
Of course, Botello’s incredibly tender, juicy, fatty, thickly sliced beef brisket is the star of the show, with its peppery bark and perfectly pink smoke ring. Pair it with the buttery tater-tot casserole and sweet corn pudding for one truly epic meal.
The dish: Vietnamese short rib fajitas
Houston icon and hospitality industry hero Chris Shepherd (Underbelly, The Hay Merchant, Georgia James, One Fifth, and more) opened UB Preserv in 2018 as a way to preserve the spirit of his now-closed flagship restaurant, Underbelly. That concept quickly expanded far beyond Shepherd’s original vision and the restaurant, led now by rising star Nick Wong, a Momofuku alum, has come into its own with a seasonal menu that reflects the city’s diversity.
Case in point: the Vietnamese short rib fajitas. These slow-cooked 44 Farms short ribs are an OG item at the restaurant and can always be found on the menu. They’re served in the style of Vietnamese lemongrass grilled beef, or bo nuong vi – an ode to longtime Houston favorites Saigon Pagolac and Mai’s Restaurant. Pro tip: Don’t sleep on the crispy rice salad with serrano vinaigrette, either.
11. Crawfish & Noodles
The dish: Viet-Cajun crawfish
This Asiatown staple, a fixture on Bellaire Boulevard since 2008, has been featured on the Travel Channel, Food Network, and “Ugly Delicious,” but the national acclaim hasn’t taken away from its relaxed vibe. James Beard-nominated chef Trong Nguyen is credited with igniting the Viet-Cajun crawfish craze with his finger-licking hybrid take on the boiled mudbugs.
The crawfish here are served exactly one way, and that’s just fine with us. After boiling, the crustaceans are drenched in a rich, garlicky butter sauce and tossed in spicy Vietnamese and Cajun seasonings. And that’s all they need.
The dish: Roast chicken
Houston native Travis McShane spent a decade under the tutelage of celebrated chef Jonathan Waxman, of New York’s Barbuto, before returning home for this solo foray. Ostia opened its doors in 2020, serving up New American cuisine with Mediterranean and Italian undertones. Waxman is widely credited as a pioneer of the farm-to-table movement in New York, and so it comes as no surprise that McShane’s venture focuses on local and sustainable ingredients.
And yes, roast chicken: Waxman’s version is known far and wide in the culinary world, and McShane has cooked more than his fair share. That’s exactly why we believe you won’t want to miss this one. This version – simple with beautifully crisp skin served with lemon and salsa verde – pays homage to McShane’s longtime mentor.
The dish: Braised pork and crispy rice
Chef Christine Ha, the first blind contestant on “MasterChef” and winner of season three, won raves for her Vietnamese gastropub concept, The Blind Goat, housed in downtown’s Bravery Chef Hall. This standalone restaurant, launched in partnership with Saigon House’s Tony J. Nguyen in fall 2020, continues Ha’s mission of bringing the traditional Vietnamese recipes of her family to the masses – but with an expertly executed contemporary spin that also plays up the regional flavors of the Texas Gulf Coast.
Every Vietnamese household has its own version of braised pork and rice. Ha’s homey take on this much-beloved sweet-savory dish, an update on her winning version on “MasterChef,” is served over rice that’s been crisped to perfection in a stone bowl and punctuated with tangy pickled mustard greens and a soft-boiled egg. (Her Gordon Ramsay-approved Rubbish Apple Pie à la mode, made with star anise, ginger and lemongrass and topped with vanilla ice cream that’s drizzled with fish-sauce caramel, also appears on the menu.)
The dish: Omakase
There’s no shortage of excellent and unique omakase experiences to be had in Houston these days, and this is one that should not be overlooked. The intimate four-seat counter is tucked away inside the clothing store Glass Cypress in Montrose and offers an “avant-garde-inspired” omakase of 18 to 20 courses, complete with complimentary beverages.
Of course, omakase means that everything put before you will be chef’s choice, and in this case, dependent on the season. But a recent sampling of offerings included A5 lumpia – made with prized A5 Miyazaki wagyu, Shogun maitake duxelle, and dehydrated black trumpet mushrooms – and sweet and briny Maine sea urchin nigiri with shiso oil and lime zest.
15. Pho Binh by Night
The dish: Pho, with a side of bone marrow
Run a search for the “best pho” in Houston and you’ll see that the original Pho Binh branch – a modest, converted trailer in South Houston – consistently makes the list. Today there are multiple locations in the Houston area serving the original locale’s signature long-simmered broth, including this one, which stays open far later than the typical pho spot, making it a favorite haunt for night owls and local chefs getting off work.
The fragrant broth, with hints of star anise, cinnamon, and ginger, is the main attraction, and the meats – rare beef steak, tender brisket, well-done flank, and chewy meatball, tendon, and tripe – just accoutrements. But those in the know order their steaming hot bowl with a heaping side of rich, slightly sweet bone marrow, which adds a heavenly dimension to the aromatic soup.