Houston is America’s most diverse city, and—in not unrelated news—it’s increasingly touted as one of the country’s best cities for food. And yet it still flies under the radar for many people. Perhaps the city sprawl frightens them away, or the prospect of having to drive (a minimum of) 20 minutes to get pretty much anywhere. But that’s a small price to pay to experience some of the best this dynamic city has to offer.
In Houston, not only does the great diversity make for lots of variety in the restaurant scene, but the city’s special brand of colliding cultures has also created a perfect storm of culinary innovation, of unapologetic riffing on local tradition, that’s unwittingly beget essential new dishes—new cuisines even. It’s an exciting and effortless fusion of cultures informed by precisely who is doing the cooking and where they come from, with the essence of Texas sprinkled throughout. Incredibly, exploring the food here is like witnessing the birth of new local foods, something we typically associate with traditional dishes that have been around a long time.
Of course, Houston has those more historic foods too—this is Texas, after all. And between meals of experimental Viet-Cajun food, Czech pastries, classic BBQ, and breakfast tacos to die for there are plenty of museums to visit, parks to stroll in, and breweries the length of a city block to stretch out in. You won’t be disappointed. Just be sure to try these 8 essential dishes to get acquainted with Houston—its past and present, and surely its future.
Breakfast tacos might be the best thing about Texas. We loved them in Austin and they were an immediate obsession for our whole family in Houston. Breakfast tacos every day, no questions asked. The simple but perfect classic Tex-Mex pairing of soft tortilla de harina (flour tortilla) and eggs scrambled with potato or chorizo or bacon (among other things) is a match made in breakfast heaven. Why aren’t these more popular outside this state??
We tried a few different breakfast taco spots in Houston, but our favorite was Brothers Taco House (713-223-0091; 1604 Emancipation Ave., map), where a steam-table setup guarantees fast delivery of your taco (average price $1.60-$1.90 each). First decide if you want a schmear of frijoles (refried beans, and the answer is yes), then pick your poison: egg and potato, egg and bacon, potato and chorizo, egg and chorizo. These are all delicious, as was the deceivingly simple spicy potato filling, cooked in a tomato-habanero sauce. Don’t forget some green and red salsa at the counter.
Alamo Tamales (two locations including 809 Berry Rd., map) does some excellent, fast steam-table breakfast tacos too, with the bonus that they wrap them in house-made flour tortillas (at the Berry Rd. branch, you can watch the ladies work in a glass-walled enclosure—do yourself a favor and bring a few dozen home with you!). We also liked the tacos, wrapped in thicker, wheatier tortillas, at Villa Arcos (3009 Navigation Blvd, map)—the space has lovely outdoor picnic tables, but everything is cooked to order, so expect a 15-minute wait on busy mornings.
In a city as heavily Hispanic as diverse Houston, you can bet tacos and tamales are pretty much everywhere. Tamales, corn husk-wrapped packets of masa and your protein of choice, make a wonderful breakfast or anytime snack, and if you are at a place that makes them by hand, even better.
Alamo Tamales (two locations including 809 Berry Rd., map) indeed delivers on its name, offering an assortment of handmade and machine-made tamales at all hours (the choice of which to order should be obvious!). On the handmade front, the Berry Road branch, its ceiling festively hung with colorful piñatas, has bean, chicken, or pork tamales, sold by the dozen for $12.99—and yes, you’re allowed to mix and match. Don’t be concerned about having too many; these are small, skinny, and easily scarfed down, plus we imagine they’d keep well for a while. We loved the slightly spicy chicken variety.
If you’ve heard anything at all about Houston food, you probably know about Vietnamese-Cajun cuisine, the product of a natural decades-long fusion of two cultures mixing in one city. Houston has a huge Vietnamese population that dates back to the years following the fall of Saigon; the area’s climate and proximity to water proved a natural fit for many Vietnamese immigrants, especially those hailing from fishing communities. And something about the Cajun way of cooking and eating things like crawfish particularly spoke to them. Viet-Cajun cuisine was born in Houston, and really exploded, according to local experts, with the further influx of Vietnamese from Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina in the mid-2000s.
So let’s get to Viet-Cajun cuisine as it exists today. The Cajun culture loves it some crawfish, and the Vietnamese have a natural affinity for preparing seafood, broadly speaking, so the critters have become an essential component of this fusion cuisine. Especially in the streets of Asiatown, there’s crawfish pho and crawfish fried rice to be found, but the most iconic dish is simply boiled crawfish, just like in the boils of Louisiana. But there are some key differences in the Houston way: While every restaurant has their own spin, here they typically boil the crawfish in Cajun spices, then toss them in a garlic butter sauce, often seasoned with various herbs and spices. Cayenne is usually present, just like in Louisiana, but also perhaps ginger, lemongrass, Thai basil, habanero. Tableside preparation, once the bibs and gloves are doled out, typically includes an unceremonious dump of the slick and spicy crawfish out of a plastic bag, so none of that buttery sauce is lost.
They sky’s the limit, and that’s kind of the point, as David Chang notes in the Gulf Coast Ugly Delicious episode: Unrestricted by strict Cajun tradition, the Vietnamese chefs here have free reign to adapt and innovate the simple crawfish boil.
There are so many places to get Viet-Cajun crawfish these days, but one of the most historic and celebrated is Crawfish and Noodles (11360 Bellaire Blvd, map), where the chef famously uses a rich French butter in his garlic-butter sauce. You can order them “regular,” with no spice (just the garlic-butter sauce), or mild-to-medium spicy (market price, but about $12 per pound). Even the mild has a healthy hotness to it! As the name suggests, this restaurant also has great stir-fried rice noodles, and we loved the salt and pepper blue crabs, lotus salad, and fish-sauce chicken wings. Get a bucket of bottled beers and you are in for a fun (if messy) night.
Other popular spots for a killer Viet-Cajun meal include LA Crawfish (multiple locations including 3957 Richmond Ave., map) and Captain T Seafood Market (10815 Beechnut St #107, map), the latter of which is housed inside a fish market.
A comforting, fragrant bowl of Vietnamese phở, or beef noodle soup, is practically a rite of passage in Houston, given the huge Vietnamese population. Drive down any street (outside the majority-Hispanic areas, at least) and you will see signs for PHO within a few blocks.
A fixture of the Houston Vietnamese scene since the 1980s, Cali Sandwich and Fast Food (713-520-0710; 2900 Travis St., map), a recommendation we took from David Chang’s show, makes a mean bowl of phở at hard-to-beat prices ($8.99 or less), and it tastes just as good taken to-go, as we had to, because components are kept separate. (Pictured is actually one-quarter of the full serving.) The deep, rich, dark broth is unbelievably delicious, laced with anise and sliced onions and augmented by all the usual add-ins: basil, bean sprouts, lime, jalapeno, Sriracha. As always, we loved the beef combo order (phở đặc biệt) because you get just the right mix of flank and brisket, meatball and (thinly sliced) tripe.
Like pho, banh mi—the iconic Vietnamese baguette sandwich, typically filled with your protein of choice plus cucumber, shredded pickled carrots and radish, cilantro, mayo, and pâté —is standard fare in modern-day Houston.
Once again, we visited Cali Sandwich and Fast Food (713-520-0710; 2900 Travis St., map) for its namesake specialty. Here, most of the banh mi tops out at $3.69, and it’s a generous serving. We went with the BBQ pork banh mi, but other options include shredded chicken, pork meatball, tofu—next time we’ll try the fish ball banh mi. Ours tasted super fresh, and was topped with sliced carrots and onions, some cucumbers and jalapeno sliced lengthwise, and lots of cilantro. We asked to hold the homemade mayo (personal preference), which made the sandwich a bit dry, but some Sriracha and nước chấm dipping sauce borrowed from the yummy bún thịt nướng, or grilled pork and vermicelli noodles, we ordered for the kids more than made up for it. The chewy bread itself was excellent.
Thanks to the Czech immigrants who settled in rural Texas in the late 19th century, the kolache has grown into a “Texas thing.” Traditionally, these are fruit- or cheese-filled Czech pastries made of a yeast dough in a square shape, the sweet fillings visible in a circle within. But the pillowy pastry has, of course, evolved over time in Texas, and nowadays there’s many types of flavors available—not only of the fruit variety, but also meat, egg, or cheese. These savory varieties typically have an elongated shape, and technically are not true kolaches but klobasniki, or klobasnek.)
To try both kinds of pastry in Houston, you have many options, but we love the 1956-established The Original Kolache Shoppe (5404 Telephone Rd., map), a family-owned spot in the southeast neighborhood of Golfcrest that’s conveniently on the way to the Space Center. Everything here is made in-house. On our visit we tried the lemon kolache (other traditional options that may be available include apricot, blueberry, poppy seed, raspberry, sweet cheese, and more) as well as the chicken fajita and sausage-cheese-jalapeño. The verdict? All incredible, especially the savory ones. The fajita flavor is like a chicken empanada on steroids, with chunks of cheesy tender chicken, while the sausage one is akin to a hot dog layered with cheese and pepper, wrapped in pillowy bread. There are also pastrami-filled klobasnek here, which aren’t super common. Note that the bakery closes by noon or 1pm most days, so go early!
Queso, Tex-Mex Food
For all the great variety of foods in Houston, it would be a shame to come here and not eat any Tex-Mex favorites, like queso or fajitas. We delve into the differences between what’s locally known as “interior Mexican food” and Tex-Mex in our Austin guide, but here we’ll just jump into some favorites of the latter.
We fell in love with Texan queso while in Austin, so that was high on our list of must-eats in Houston. We found some delicious melty cheese to dip into at Saint Arnold’s Brewery (2000 Lyons Ave., map), one of many wonderful craft breweries in this city but also, incidentally, Texas’ oldest, established in 1994. Here there’s plenty of space for kids (or dogs) to play outside, bocce courts, long picnic tables with Houston skyline views, and an indoor cathedral-inspired space with mural-covered “chapels,” little drinking nooks with tables and large, vivid paintings from local artists.
There’s also great pizza, house-cured meat platters, and beer (duh). And the queso hits the spot, served with chips (though you can also pair with the house-made soft pretzels).
For a full sit-down Tex-Mex meal in Houston, look no further than the Original Ninfa’s on Navigation (2704 Navigation Blvd., map), a city landmark since 1973. There you’ll find not only queso but a full menu of fajitas (with handmade tortillas), enchiladas, platos Tejuanos, and plenty of elevated add-ins, like grilled quail and adobo rabbit tacos.
Like elsewhere in Texas, good BBQ is easy to find in Houston. There are plenty of spots in which you’ll find your typical Central Texas-style meats, from the Anthony Bourdain-approved, family-owned Burns Original BBQ (8307 De Priest St., map), where ribs reign supreme, to the easy-to-miss old-school Ray’s BBQ Shack (3929 Old Spanish Trail, map).
But we were most intrigued by Blood Bros. BBQ (5425 Bellaire Blvd., map), which, like the others, specializes in Central Texas-style BBQ but throws in that innovative, effortless Asian-Cajun fusion that only seems to happen in this city (and comes courtesy of the Chinese and Vietnamese backgrounds of the three owners, whose longtime friendship was born in a Houston suburb). Feast on the smoked brisket, the pork belly burnt ends, and the pork ribs, but also the smoked turkey banh mi (with a shmear of house-made chicken liver pâté), the brisket fried rice, and the Thai green curry boudin. Spicy Asian pickles, creamy mac and cheese, and pinto beans round out a meal here that will more than hold you till the next one … which, it’s safe to say in Houston, will probably be damn good.
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