The Houston Restaurant Bucket List
Sadly, we’re all going to kick the bucket one day. But before we do, we may as well go out with a delicious bang, right? We’ve shared the 50 foods to eat in Houston before you die, but what about the restaurants that are so delicious or classic or just imbedded in the soul of our city that you have to grab a meal before you pass on from this artery-clogging world? These are those 20 spots, so you can start lining up the reservations now.
This cool as hell 31-seater from husband-and-wife team Justin Yu and Karen Man has impressed locals from the start. Each intricately plated course is thoughtfully composed and brilliantly intense, and as such, their tasting menus have become Houston’s gold standard (even the ones that are made entirely of vegetables). Don’t come expecting a fussy fine dining experience. Instead, grab your own flatware from the drawers built into your table, sit back and listen to the turntable, and enjoy the tastiest show in town.
If you’re going to eat aged prime beef on your own dime, make sure it’s at a restaurant that butchers it in-house and ages the cuts onsite using a 28++ (yes, plus plus) day wet/dry process that concentrates the flavors and makes the steak so incredibly excellent that you’ll want to save all your dimes to come back for more. And now the homegrown NY-meets-Texas steakhouse has two handsome locations at which you can do so. Don’t miss the whiskey cart, which houses selections cherry-picked by Anvil alum and bar director Matt Tanner; and the stellar wine program from wine directors Bill Elsey (downtown) and Robert Smith (Galleria).
This unassuming strip center joint was one of the first places to put Vietnamese crawfish on everyone’s radar. Since then, Viet-Cajun concepts have spawned all over the city and the new take on mudbugs became a Bayou City staple. Hit the OG to get the Hall of Fame-worthy critters absolutely soaked in garlic-butter and Cajun spices. And do it with some whole fried-Dungeness crab, slow-simmered beef and pork meatball pho, and hunks of bánh mì to sop up all the juice.
Get those wallets primed for an old-school fine dining experience that rivals any in the city. Open since 1965, the timeless see-and-be-seen resto from Houston legend Tony Vallone has hosted the likes of Tony Bennett, Oscar de la Renta, and seven sitting presidents. It also spawned powerhouse eateries like Ciao Bello, Vallone’s, La Griglia, and Grotto. Taking in the fine-art-adorned dining room with a glass of hand-selected wine and Tony’s soaring black truffle soufflé is a moment every Houstonian should enjoy in their lifetime.
Remember that artery clogging we spoke of earlier? This is where you should make that happen. Start with some apps “for the table” like the loaded pollo bullets (those are cream-cheese-stuffed and jalapeño-studded chicken bites wrapped in bacon) and Tex-Cajun fries (queso, gravy, and roast beef smother a bed of shoestring fries). Then dive head first into Cajun classics like redfish etouffee, seriously spiced crawfish boils, and sloppy po-boys, fully dressed. Hope you’re not wearing one of your nice shirts.
Everything Houstonians thought about Chinese food was forever changed when husband-and-wife team Cori Xiong and Heng Chen refused to cater to the General Tso crowd at this Asiatown staple. Daring crews will love the stupid-hot duck tongue and pork intestine glass noodles, while more tentative eaters can get down with dan dan noodles and peppercorn beef (which, FYI, will also be stupid hot). With an ITL location now booming on Westheimer, even more people can wade into the authentic Sichuan action.
So many of Houston’s culinary elite have cut their teeth at this Commander’s Palace offshoot, it may as well be a damn teething ring. We’re talking Underbelly’s Chris Shepherd, Holley’s Seafood’s Mark Holley, Zelko Bistro’s Jamie Zelko, and Randy Evans of the former Haven, to name exactly four. Eating here is pretty much a sneak peek into the city’s gastronomic future, and you can get a glimpse at the crystal ball while dining on throwbacks and Bayou City-inspired eats -- think bananas Foster and shrimp-n-grits, alongside Texan pecan-crusted Gulf fish and the city’s most luxurious seafood tower.
Despite what its name tells you, this 1946 landmark is not notorious for its barbecue, but rather its near perfect take on classic Southern fried chicken. Get the alarmingly juicy All Dark; the legendary stuff is completely worth the 30 minute wait. Just don’t forget to tack on some crisp and crackling fried shrimp while you’re at it.
Austin may have had it first, but Houston’s rendition of the Japanese eatery has the perfect blend of consistently immaculate food and hometown soul. The menu dances the line between playful and downright serious, with razor-sharp cuts of sushi and sashimi getting along just fine next to melt-in-your-mouth pork belly tataki, oak-grilled escolar, and sweet and smoky machi cure that loyal followers have dubbed “Japanese nachos.” Our advice? Go for the Chef’s Tasting to experience every bit of brain-stopping deliciousness without having to use your actual brain.
There’s a reason Chef Ronnie Killen’s namesake smokehouse makes list after list after list. While perhaps the only way to understand why is to (wait in line and) taste it, we’ll attempt to explain. The salt-and-pepper rubbed brisket is masterfully rendered and mouth-wateringly moist. The monstrous beef ribs weigh in around 2 pounds and are unctuous as all hell. And the crispy fried bird, CFS, mac & cheese, and carrot cake? They knock your maw-maw’s famed versions out of the damn park. (Sorry maw-maw!)
Having culinary jedi and chef Manabu Horiuchi’s (aka Hori-san) guide you through razor-sharp cuts of sashimi and intricately balanced sushi isn’t the only way to dine at this sexy Japanese eatery. You can also sip on sake and take down 72-hour slow-cooked Kobe beef skewers and Houston’s best bowl of miso ramen in the main dining room. Long story short, you need to go here more than once so you can do them both.
A meal at a historic, century-old log cabin set on the banks of the White Oak Bayou is as classic Texan as it gets, and the beautifully rustic eatery boasts impressive fare to match -- think mix grills showboating elk, venison, quail, and wild boar next to upscale throwbacks like lobster thermidor finished tableside. Burger Fridays and happy hour bites on the patio offer wallet-friendly options that are worth the trip to Shady Acres.
Sure, you can get great Tex-Mex all around town (and you should!). But is life even worth living without hitting up this fajita OG? We think not. Made the old-school way with outside skirt steak served sizzling on an impossibly hot comal, you’ll want to try the fajitas that started America’s Tex-Mex fever. You’ll also want to staples like mole enchiladas, Oaxacan-style pork tamales, jalapeño-stuffed Shrimp Diablo, and Chef Alex Padilla’s crazy good specials.
If you think it was enough to dine at the more casual half of this two-faced establishment from chefs Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan, you’d be mistaken. Sure, Provisions is totally rad. But entering the secret door to The Pass will unlock one of the most polished and exciting multi-course tastings in town. We can’t even ruin the surprise because the menu changes so often, but expect a petit-four cart at the dinner’s end because these guys are fun like that.
There will always be a newer, shinier burger in town. That’s even more reason to visit this old-school burger shack, which started as a mom-and-pop grocer in the ‘30s before getting into (and ultimately killing) the burger game in the ‘70s. While you could go with a simple half-pounder, you only live once, right? So get the insanely bad-for-you Grim burger, sloppily supplemented with creamy mac & cheese, a fried egg, jalapeño, and bacon. Or the scorchingly hot Firehouse Burger, positively dripping habanero sauce and cayenne butter. Whatever you do, bring cash.
With Backstreet, Caracol, and Hugo’s under their belts, restauranteurs Tracy Vaught and Chef Hugo Ortega have built an empire worth eating at. While we love them all, if we had to choose just one to start at, it’d be their regional-Mexican haunt on Westheimer. And we would start there on a Sunday, when their vibrant interior Mexican cuisine comes in the form of chilaquiles, costillas de puerco, dark moles, carnitas, ceviches, tamales, chile rellenos, tres leches and pan dulce, all set up in a NEVER-ENDING BUFFET.
This wood-fired powerhouse from Chef Marco Wiles delivers scorched and bubbling Neapolitan-style pies alongside things like baby artichoke fritto, risotto suppli, and spot on al dente rigatoni dotted with cream and hunks of guanciale. Tuck into a dark nook and take it all down with a bottle of Italian vino in one of the city’s most romantic settings.
When an El Bulli-trained chef opens the first Spanish fine dining restaurant in Houston, you go. You go for hard-to-score-elsewhere things like jamón ibérico de Bellota and anchovies from the Cantabrian Sea. You go for a lineup of both intriguing and stunning seafood dishes, intoxicatingly good grilled duck breast, and flawlessly executed bone-in ribeye & frites. And finally, you go for the exceptional wine list and desserts like rum raisin Catalán brûlée, all of which you take down while being treated like Spanish royalty.
This new-to-the-scene culinary lodge from Atlanta restaurateur and Houston native Chef Ford Fry is already proving to be a stunner. With former Ciao Bello Chef Bobby Matos manning the open kitchen (and the giant, wood-fired hearth), the eatery offers modern globally- and coastally-inspired eats. Try the porky schniztel or the whole crispy Gulf snapper, and don’t miss out on one of Houston’s most excellent oyster programs.
No story of Houston food isn’t complete until you’ve visited this hot eatery from celebrated Chef Chris Shepherd. With an emphasis on building relationships with local farmers, and an always clever rotation of shared plates mixed with staples like the Korean braised goat & dumplings that have been on the menu since day one, UB bills itself as “The Story of Houston Food.” But don’t think you’re done exploring just because you got your bill. Because with every check, Shepherd doles out a hand-picked list of lesser known but completely worth visiting spots that showcase the diversity Houston’s awesome culinary scene. Looks like your bucket list just got a little bit longer.
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