In the past few years, Houston has gone from "that other city in Texas" to a nationally recognized culinary destination. And, like Kenny Smith in the original NBA Jam, it's continually heating up. But before getting TOO fixated on all things shiny and brand new, let's pay some respect to the places that helped set Houston's culinary scene on fire in the first place. From humble greasy spoons to game-changing global spots, these are the dozen defining Houston restaurants.
Since opening just two years ago, this spirited 31-seater in the Warehouse District has been challenging meat-centric palates one MoMA-worthy plate at a time. There’s meat too, of course – think grass-fed beef sausage with pickled beets in dried offal sauce – but the four- and seven-course tasting menus focus heavily on brilliantly prepared vegetables. And shockingly, no one seems to mind one bit.
Monster Gulf Coast oysters are the name of the game at this old-fashioned Creole and Cajun haunt. So are killer seafood gumbos, platters of steamed or fried clams, shrimp, and crab, and NOLA favorites like crawfish etouffee and catfish po’ boys. These guys always bring that Third Coast soul, which becomes especially evident during the Sunday jazz and blues brunch.
When adjoining sister restaurants The Hay Merchant and Underbelly opened up shop near Montrose and Westheimer in 2012, we saw a glimpse into the now-thriving block’s future. Craft brewpub The Hay Merchant continues to draw crowds with its badass selection of on-tap brews and funky fare (sweet & spicy pig ears, anyone?).
Next door at Underbelly, Chef Chris Shepherd tells "the story of Houston food" through an ethnic mosaic of seasonal shared plates. And since it’s Shepherd, said plates feature the best farmers market produce, fresh seafood, and locally raised meats (which are butchered in-house, because of course) around.
This family-owned greasy spoon has been a Houston institution since opening as a grocery in 1939. Loyal patrons know to bring cash and grab a roll of paper towels before digging into smothered cheese enchiladas, old-fashioned tuna melts, and sloppy-as-hell frankenburgers like the mac-and-cheese-jalapeño-bacon-and-egg-loaded Grim Burger.
It doesn’t get more "Mutt City" than Cajun-Vietnamese fusion. Bowls of piping hot, garlic-butter-soaked crawfish waft intoxicating scents through this Chinatown eatery along with nuoc-mam-glazed chicken wings, whole-fried blue crabs, and rich, slow-simmered beef and pork meatball pho.
Though this heavy-hitter is an offshoot of an Austin original, its sophisticated, upbeat spirit is uniquely Houston. The Montrose haunt’s sleek feel combined with its consistently immaculate sushi and sashimi, inspired modern Japanese plates, and impeccable wine program make the always-packed restaurant hard to beat.
Though these dual-concept, space-sharing restaurants – one refined and one spunky – haven’t been around long, they feel wholly Houston. Enter a secret door to indulge in a five- or eight-course tasting menu that’s both polished and edgy at the white-table-cloth-laden Pass; or nosh on equally-as-thrilling pizzas, pastas, and shared bistro plates at the urban-rustic Provisions. Some serious cocktail and wine programs push the two restaurants to the next level of insanity, as does Julia Child’s Muppet voice playing on repeat in the unisex bathroom.
With USDA prime and Kobe beef that literally melts in your damn mouth, plus slabs of smoked brisket and ribs that rival any ‘cue in the country, we couldn’t choose just one of these local masterpieces. After years of success with his home-grown steakhouse, Chef Ronnie Killen killed it with his line-down-the-block barbecue pop-up this past year. Thankfully, that pop-up finally manifested itself, Pinocchio-style, into a full-fledged restaurant in February. Now our only problem is deciding which one to visit next.
If the constant line out the door proves anything, it’s that even in a city full of tacos, the full-flavored breakfast and lunch tacos at this orange shack on Washington shine (and the same can be said for its other two locations). Line up at the steam table for the softest handmade tortillas stuffed with chorizo, barbacoa, and chicharrones, just like your abuela used to make.
This Tex-Mex hotspot may be the OG of fajitas (for real, they’re credited with launching the national fajita craze), but that’s not all they are good for. Devoted fans flock to the original location for as-big-as-your-head frozen margs and kickass Mexican staples like mole enchiladas, Oaxacan-style pork tamales, and jalapeño-stuffed Shrimp Diablo.
Despite what outsiders may think, it’s not all Tex-Mex and BBQ in Houston. The locally influenced mix of home-style and Indian street foods make this modern Indian resto one of the city’s top dining destinations. Gorge on scratch-made snacks like pickled shrimp and roasted corn chaat, a plethora of curries and thalis, or chocolate-saffron-and-cardamom-infused sweets from their addiction-inducing "bake lab".
Quirky, fun, and relaxed, this offbeat craft brew and exotic hot dog joint describes Houston in a nutshell. Grab a loaded-up wild game sausage and a pint or five from the wall of taps; then partake in whatever silliness – be it a horror movie night, BOGO burger frenzy, or growler give-away – that’s going in their huge backyard that day.
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1. Oxheart1302 Nance St, Houston
2. Danton's Gulf Coast Seafood Kitchen4611 Montrose , Houston
3. The Hay Merchant / Underbelly1100 Westheimer Rd, Houston
4. Lankford Grocery & Market88 Dennis St, Houston
5. Crawfish & Noodles11360 Bellaire Blvd Ste 990, Houston
6. Uchi904 Westheimer Rd, Houston
7. The Pass & Provisions807 Taft St, Houston
8. Killen's Steakhouse6425 W Broadway St, Pearland
9. Killen's BBQ3613 Broadway St, Pearland
10. Laredo Taqueria915 Snover St, Houston
11. Ninfa's on Navigation2704 Navigation Blvd, Houston
12. Pondicheri2800 Kirby Dr, Houston
13. Moon Tower Inn3004 Canal St, Houston
North of Downtown Houston sits Oxheart, a fine dining establishment that is luxurious in the simplicity of its American, seasonally dependent fare. Two menus are offered nightly and change frequently, never ceasing to flash ingredients you’ve never tasted (or, more often than not, heard of), but are confident will be absolutely divine, like vadouvan spices, muskmelon sorbet, mung bean pancakes, and alliums. Presentation of each dish is inspired from colors and shapes you can find in nature, an ethos also echoed in the simple preparation of ingredients – spiced, pickled, or left altogether raw. Décor is similarly lo-fi: wooden tables were crafted by a neighborhood carpenter and come fit with hideaway drawers that reveal the lot of silverware you’ll need for the meal, and in place of an esoteric art collection, walls are adorned with spray-paint graphics, the mark of a local graffiti artist.
Occupying the bottom floor of Montrose's Chelsea Market, Danton's Gulf Coast Seafood Kitchen is a timeless 200-seat seafood restaurant with both a dining room and a separate oyster bar. You won't find any fast-fleeing trends in the atmosphere or the food here, just a constant after-work dinner rush and a menu full of Southern favorites. Big groups can usually be found around a platter of fresh-shucked oysters, and temptation for grilled fish or steak rarely bows out.
A joint venture, The Hay Merchant and Underbelly operate separately but are attached via a butchering room that’s fit to hold a whole hog, a cow, and other large, meat-bearing animals. Hay Merchant, a craft beer bar, boasts 75 draft beers that range in style from cask-conditioned American porters to sour and funky wild ales. Underbelly, the more upscale of the two, is a restaurant and wine bar serving up juicy burgers and meats, like roasted pig’s head and smoked brisket. No matter how adventurous your palate, consider pairing your dish with one of the aged barleywines on tap.
This Houston institution on Dennis St has been in business since 1939, selling groceries to locals alongside old-fashioned tuna melts and huge burgers. Everything is made to order, so the service takes time, and you simply pay at the counter when you're finished eating. The space itself is kitschy and quaint with shaded picnic tables outside for some greasy al fresco dining.
Crawfish & Noodles serves up an unexpected combination of Cajun and Vietnamese food to west Houston. On the corner of a Bellaire Ave strip mall, C&N impresses with bowls of piping hot, garlic-butter-soaked crawfish alongside the likes of slow-simmered beef and pork meatball pho. This joint's also got a massive dining space with ample seating and even a dance floor, which makes it a prime spot for private parties and events for the whole family.
Located in Montrose, from acclaimed Austin Chef Tyson Cole, Uchi is Houston’s outpost of the Austin-based Japanese hot spot. The intimate, upscale restaurant is constantly bustling with sushi- and sake-craving diners, and because reservations are hard to come by, be prepared to wait for a taste of the inventive Japanese cuisine. Or, beat the crowd and arrive early for their daily Sake Social, where for an hour and a half, you can sample the highlights of the menu, accompanied by copious amounts of sake (or beer, or wine), at a fraction of the cost.
Two-faced in the best way possible, The Pass & Provisions in Montrose offer you a choice between a more refined experience, or a more relaxed one. The Pass will serve you polished five- or eight-course tasting menus over a white table cloth, or Provisions will provide hearty pizzas, pastas, and shared bistro plates in more rustic surroundings. Some serious cocktail and wine programs push the two restaurants to the next level of insanity, as does Julia Child’s Muppet voice playing on repeat in the unisex bathroom.
Chef Ronnie Killen's Houston steakhouse pairs so-tender-it-falls-off-the-bone Allen Brothers USDA prime beef with sides like corn risotto and jalapeno fontina cheese. If you feel like going slightly lighter on the arteries (in preparation for dessert), opt for the crisp greens salad with walnuts, blue cheese, red onion, and apples or the delicate grilled branzino. Killen’s will end your meal off sweetly with a chocolate tart made with caramelized gingerbread crème, raspberry jelly, and toasted meringue or a caramel half-apple with mousse and maple cinnamon sponge cake. The interior of Killen’s offers, in typical steakhouse fashion, an open layout with plenty of room for white tablecloth-wreathed four-tops, which will certainly not stay white for long as you devour your dishes.
This Pearland brick-and-mortar barbecue joint, born from the success of Chef Ronnie Killen's immensely popular pop-up, delivers mouth-watering 'cue like slabs of smoked brisket, pulled pork, and homemade sausages. Killen has training at Le Cordon Bleu and does the BBQ classics in a way that exceeds Texas standards of size and taste. Try some of the more unexpected menu items, like brisket tamales or fried chicken.
This bright orange shack is hard to miss -- right off of Washington Ave with a line out the door as a result of their seriously delicious breakfast and lunch tacos -- get in line and prepare for some fluffy, handmade tortillas stuffed with chorizo, barbacoa, and chicharrones.
The fajitas at the original Tex-Mex outpost on Navigation earn their cook the title of Mexican fare experts. Alongside the fajitas, staples like mole enchiladas, Oaxacan-style pork tamales, and jalapeño-stuffed Shrimp Diablo (not to mention the head-sized frozen margaritas) take some serious culinary chops, which means these dishes go far above and beyond Houston's other Tex-Mex eateries.
This Indian fusion spot in Upper Kirby serves a mix of street snacks and home-style foods all day long. The extensive menu includes a nice roster of dosas, thali sample platters, and curries, plus burgers and Mumbai-style frankie wraps. Pondicheri isn't 100% vegetarian (there are plenty of lamb and chicken dishes), but its menu is generally plant-forward. The airy space resembles an upscale cafeteria and includes a counter-serve bakery with Indian-spiced pastries and baked goods.
Awesome events like horror movie nights and growler giveaways, tons of craft brews from their wall of taps, and exotic hot dogs like a wild game sausage make Moon Tower Inn a unique and enjoyable hangout. Oh, and they have a backyard, too.