Houston isn’t necessarily the first place you’d think of when considering the most alluring culinary hubs in the U.S., but it should be. As one of the nation’s biggest cities (nearly 2.3 million people) with a diverse population, it offers up a bustling restaurant scene that’s ripe for a sampling.
Visitors have more options than can fit in a single trip, but the rewards for trying are great. The Bayou City’s can’t-miss spots tend to marry cuisines or bring a modern flair to tradition. Below, a taste of what you’ll taste in Houston.
What is a trip to Texas without sauce-covered fingers and a belly full of barbecue? As anyone who’s trekked to any corner of the state knows, a recommendation is impossibly tricky. Everyone has their favorite, and in a large city like Houston, you could ask 10 people for their favorite and get 10 different responses.
Leonard Botello IV opened his instant hit, Truth Barbecue, a bit to the northwest in Brenham in 2015 in what the restaurant calls “a small shack off a rural highway.” Now it has a Houston location as well. Both restaurants have built up an extensive list of accolades, including repeatedly being ranked among the best barbecue in the entire state.
Blood Bros. BBQ is right up there too. Founded by a trio of natives of suburban Alief, this restaurant in neighboring Bellaire combines tradition with contemporary techniques, including the melding of Asian flavors and Texas-style barbecue. Togarashi smoked chicken, anyone?
And don’t forget to leave room for the area’s classics, like Gatlin’s BBQ in the heart of the city and Killen’s Barbecue to the southwest in Pearland.
The Original Ninfa’s on Navigation is a Tex-Mex landmark. The late Mama Ninfa Laurenzo started serving grilled skirt steak in flour tortillas—tacos al carbon—at her family’s struggling tortilla factory in the early 1970s. The dish is said to have introduced fajitas to the world.
Ninfa’s now has two locations, which have been under the guidance of executive chef Alex Padilla for the past 15 years.
Like Ninfa’s, Lopez Mexican Restaurant now lays claim to a pair of locations—the first of which has served classic Tex-Mex since the late ’70s. Its enticing menu includes crispy tacos, enchiladas verdes, and chile-con-queso-drenched chimichangas.
Particular standouts, however, are two restaurants from award-winning chef Hugo Ortega, Hugo’s and Xochi.
Xochi, which is located downtown, is a distinct experience. The chef uses indigenous techniques and flavors to construct vibrant Oaxacan dishes, including masa, and plenty of options for vegetarians, and house-made chocolate. Ortega’s Urbe is also a popular stop for his approach on Mexican street food.
Though Puebla’s Mexican Kitchen is only open until 3 p.m., its delectable breakfast tacos are available the whole time—and can be leveled up with some barbacoa.
There’s way more happening at Houston Galleria than shopping (though, there’s plenty of that too). You can sit down for a lavish dinner at Musaafer, for instance. In addition to its striking decor, you’ll be talking about the food long after you leave. The menu showcases a modern approach to Indian fare, with dishes that represent regions across the country. Its T-uni Puri (available on the chef’s tasting menu), for instance, is a sushi-inspired play on the traditional pani puri (crisp fried flatbread filled with a mash of potato and chickpea).
If it’s true that we eat with our eyes first, yours will be feasting at chef Anita Jaisinghani’s Pondicheri in the Asia Society Texas Center. The shareable starters—including the Desi Fries (sweet potatoes dusted in chaat masala)—are hugely popular.
Among the city’s many Vietnamese restaurants, Crawfish and Noodles is a local favorite in Little Saigon, west of Chinatown. It has received worthy praise for the menu’s distinctive Vietnamese-Cajun fusion, including its crawfish.
Helmed by Christina Ha, The Blind Goat has outgrown the food hall where it originally resided. The restaurant has a thoughtful menu that tells a story—in feel, but also in a literal sense, as it’s broken into chapter headings like “Prologue” and “Chapter 3: The Animal Farm.” You can also check off a local BBQ favorite if you order the Texas BBQ Brisket Fried Rice, which uses brisket from nearby Feges.
Uchiko and its parent restaurant, Uchi, have a similar vibe and menus that echo one another. Uchiko’s site even attests that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” Yet each provides different reasons for a visit. The sushi rolls at Tyson Cole’s Uchi get rave reviews, as does its extensive wine-and-sake list. At Uchiko, chef de cuisine Shaun King recommends the smoky and spicy Hearth Roasted Lobster.
Kata Robata is another standout. Chef Manabu “Hori” Horiuchi’s restaurant asserts that it has “arguably the freshest, highest quality fish in Houston, flown in from Japan multiple times a week.”
Much, Much More
Categories are a nice way to give a glimpse of the many cuisines you can sample, but they can’t contain or define Houston’s dynamic food scene.
Make sure you don’t miss out on restaurants like Le Jardinier at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, a French bistro whose decor is as photogenic as its luscious crawfish bisque. And while Le Jardinier may have originated in New York, this location brings a little bayou to French dishes like the poached gulf shrimp.
Over at March, the high-concept tasting menu can take you around the Mediterranean. The whole experience is an exploration of the region through “gastronomy, history, and cultures,” as the website puts it.
The Israeli restaurant Hamsa is known for many things, but first and foremost its hummus. And those after a modern bistro experience will find Nancy’s Hustle in the East End often crowded with people joyously consuming the spicy pork and butter dumplings, the namesake Nancy Cakes, or its cheeseburger, served on a brioche English muffin.