The Houston Restaurant Bucket List

Published On 02/03/2016 Published On 02/03/2016
Julie Soefer Photography
Karen Man/Oxheart


Warehouse District

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.

Pappas Bros. Steakhouse

Pappas Bros. Steakhouse


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).


Crawfish & Noodles


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.



Greenway/Upper Kirby

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.

BB's Cafe

BB’s Cafe

Montrose (& other locations)

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.

Shutterstock/Ji Zhou

Mala Sichuan


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.

Brennan's of Houston

Brennan’s of Houston


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.

Sam Davenport

Barbecue Inn

Independence Heights

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.

Killen’s Barbecue

Killen’s Barbecue


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!)

Kata Robata Sushi + Grill

Kata Robata

Upper Kirby

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.

Paula Murphy

Rainbow Lodge

Shady Acres

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.

Flickr/Kaleb Fulgham

The Original Ninfa’s on Navigation

East End

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.

The Pass and Provisions

The Pass


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.

Flickr/Jimmy Emerson, DVM

Lankford Grocery


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.

Dolce Vita

Dolce Vita


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.

Nick de la Torre

BCN Taste & Tradition


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.

State of Grace Restaurant

State of Grace

River Oaks

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.

Julie Soefer Photography



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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1. Oxheart 1302 Nance St, Houston, TX 77002

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.

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2. Pappas Bros. Steakhouse 5839 Westheimer Rd, Houston, TX 77057

The Pappas are local legends, and at the top of their bona fide empire is this quintessential Texas steakhouse. Its steaks can’t be rivaled, thanks to superior cuts of beef, in-house butchery, and an intense 28-day dry-aging process (also completed in-house). The result is finely marbled, nutty, and rich USDA prime steaks that you can slice like butter. The retro-posh décor, private booths, and pampering service feel old-school cool and romantic.

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3. Crawfish & Noodles 11360 Bellaire Blvd Ste 990, Houston, TX 77072

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.

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4. Tony's 3755 Richmond Ave, Houston, TX 77046

This high-end Italian restaurant, named for Tony Vallone, has been serving elegant and elevated dishes since 1965. With a world-class wine list and fine art adorning the walls, this establishment offers an incredibly upscale experience for all dining patrons.

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5. BB's Cajun Cafe 2710 Montrose Blvd, Houston, TX 77006

This Cajun eatery in Montrose is a neighborhood staple serving up Texas and New Orleans cuisine in a laid back atmosphere. Get your hands on Cajun classics like ettouffe and crawfish boils in addition to full loaded po-boys. All of the food is pretty gut-busting, so bring some friends to go in on shareable apps like loaded fries. BB's is open late, making it the perfect stop after a night out.

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6. Mala Sichuan Bistro 9348 Bellaire Blvd, Houston, TX 77036

Inner-loopers can also get their fill of authentic, Szechuan-style Chinese thanks to the second location of this Chinatown cult classic. Prepare yourself (and your mouth) for tongue-scorching, intense flavors in the form of water-boiled beef and pot-roasted fish, all swimming with chiles and Sichuan peppercorns. Our advice: bring friends and get adventurous.

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7. Brennan's of Houston 3300 Smith St, Houston, TX 77006

This upscale resto is an offshoot of The Commander's Palace in NOLA (but has no relation to Brennan's of NOLA) and originally opened in 1967. The Texas-creole menu turtle soup, roast oysters, shrimp & orka gumbo, gulf fish pontchartrain, and honey roast duck.

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8. Barbecue Inn 116 W Crosstimbers Rd, Houston, TX 77018

Barbecue Inn's menu has been mastered for over nearly 70 years, by tweaking and perfecting their family recipes. Their fried chicken is out of this world, and it’s not even the best thing on the menu! People drive in from all over just to enjoy their fried shrimp! With either pick, you are going to enjoy a homemade batter so crispy and tasty that it will be hard to go home and tell granny that hers still the best.

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9. Uchi 904 Westheimer Rd, Houston, TX 77006

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.

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10. Killen's BBQ 3613 Broadway St, Pearland, TX 77581

Killen's BBQ is a Pearland brick-and-mortar barbecue joint born from the success of Chef Ronnie Killen's immensely popular pop-up. It delivers mouth-watering Texas-style barbecue like slabs of smoked brisket, pulled pork, and homemade sausages. Killen trained at Le Cordon Bleu and his Texas classics far exceed the Lone Star state's standards of size and taste. Be sure to desserts like banana pudding, carrot cake, and buttermilk pie.

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11. Kata Robata 3600 Kirby Dr, Houston, TX 77098

Kata Robata is Houston’s preeminent sushi and Japanese tapas restaurant, featuring a signature menu from Executive Chef Manabu “Hori” Horiuchu. On offer is a creative array of Japanese fare inflected with French flavors, evident in dishes like foie gras and duck chawanmushi -- a Japanese-style egg custard -- and miso lobster mac and cheese. The menu’s crown jewel is its 72-hour slow-cooked Texas Kobe beef skewer, which is impeccably succulent and tender. Finally, you’ll want to take advantage of Kata Robata’s sushi offerings; create endless permutations of seafood like spicy chopped scallop, New Zealand king salmon, fatty tuna, and others.

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12. Rainbow Lodge 2011 Ella Blvd, Houston, TX 77008

This upscale, seafood-centric spot focuses on elegant, grilled dishes, all served in a rustic, cabin-like setting. A sophisticated choice for lunch or dinner, the extensive menu promises a wide variety of choices, including market-driven side and salad options, for those looking for a refined and relaxing dining experience.

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13. Ninfa's on Navigation 2704 Navigation Blvd, Houston, TX 77003

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.

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14. The Pass & Provisions 807 Taft St, Houston, TX 77019

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.

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15. Lankford Grocery & Market 88 Dennis St, Houston, TX 77006

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.

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16. Hugo's 1600 Westheimer Rd, Houston, TX 77006

At this Montrose hotspot, authentic Mexican cuisine is served up in a 1925 building designed by Joseph Finger, the same architect responsible for Houston’s City Hall. Chef tktktkkt’s menu is centered on traditional regional dishes, like lime-cured snapper ceviche with cherry tomatoes, cilantro, cucumber, jalapeno, and olives, bacon-wrapped quail stuffed with chorizo, tomatillo salsa, butternut squash, ayocote beans, and quinoa, and sautéed shrimp in garlic and lime-infused oil with chipotle pepper, arroz blanco, and nopales salad. The real gem at Hugo’s, though, is the Sunday brunch, where you can fill and refill your plate with all the chilaquiles, carnitas, tamales, braised brisket, chorizo ancho chiles, ceviche, tres leches, and Mexican hot chocolate churros that your heart desires.

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17. Dolce Vita 500 Westheimer Rd, Houston, TX 77006

This Westheimer powerhouse from Chef Marco Wiles introduced the beauty of wood-fired Neapolitan pizzas to Houstonians. DV's wood-burning oven doles out perfectly bubbling and scorched pies (they only take 90 seconds to cook) in simple flavor combinations. The menu also includes tapas-like small plates categorized by meat, vegetable, and fish. Tack on a thoughtful Italian wine list and this place is a total winner.

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18. BCN Taste & Tradition 4210 Roseland St, Houston, TX 77006

When a fine dining restaurant with an El Bulli-trained chef opens the first Spanish fine dining restaurant in Houston, people take notice. And for good reason. Taking in the artwork of BCN’s (short for Barcelona) intimate 54-seat (plus another 10 at the bar) space is just the start of your epic dining experience. Get a few small plates, we’d go for boquerones, clams con sofrito de tomate, and some jamón ibérico de Bellota, a cured ham that is hard to score elsewhere in town. Of course, you’ll need to save room for the lobster bouillabaisse, 16 oz bone-in ribeye and frites, and rum raisin Catalán brûlée, too.

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19. State of Grace 3256 Westheimer Rd, Houston, TX 77098

Atlanta restaurateur and Houston native chef Ford Fry has brought his culinary magic back home with this modern, globally and coastally inspired lodge. Former Ciao Bello chef Bobby Matos mans the open kitchen and the giant, wood-fired hearth, offering you not only great food but an entertaining and immersive experience. There's a great oyster program and an upscale, vintage feel to the space, with a marble bar and handsome wooden and leather furniture.

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20. The Hay Merchant / Underbelly 1100 Westheimer Rd, Houston, TX 77006

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.