In Houston, we take our icons pretty seriously. But it’s not all ZZ Top and Beyoncé up in here. No, we also make icons out of things we eat. Or more accurately, things we drenched in cheese, gravy, and chipotle butter. And while Houston may not have invented these essential dishes, we most certainly perfected them. Here are H-town’s 13 most iconic edible offerings, and the places to get them.
Frank’s Americana RevivalAddress and Info
Frank’s is known for reinterpreting classics, but honestly, a great chicken-fried steak doesn’t need much tweaking. Instead, the kitchen focus on farm-fresh, high-quality beef with a crazy good, crisp, and craggly crust doused with an awesomely white gravy with cracked black pepper to finish the old-school number off with a major bang.
Cajun KitchenAddress and Info
Nothing is more Mutt City than the amalgamation of Vietnamese and Cajun cuisine. The traditional Gulf Coast crawdaddy boil is made even finer with the addition of things like garlic butter, Thai basil, and crab legs.
Laredo TaqueriaAddress and Info
Things move at supersonic speed once you make your way up to this taco shack’s cafeteria-style steam trays, so you better be prepared. If you’re not, just point and smile as you end up with some combination of huevos, chicharrones, beans, chorizo, and salsas all shoved into the softest, lardiest handmade tortillas in town.
The Original Kolache ShoppeAddress and Info
You’ll find a ton of imitators around town, but no place hits the spot quite like this OG pastry shoppe on Telephone Rd. It recently got a facelift, but you’ll still find the excellent soft, doughy, and flaky staples stuffed with jalapeño sausage and eggs, roast beef and cheese, and sweet, sweet cream cheese. Buy some for now. Buy more for later.
Chile con queso
Beaver’s Ice HouseAddress and Info
You’ll find vats of molten cheese at any Tex-Mex haunt in town, but the Beaver’s “knocked up” version reigns as one of the finest quesos around. That’s because -- in addition silken, green chile-spiked asadero cheese -- the icehouse packs in oak and maple-smoked barbecue brisket. The result is nothing short of molten magic.
Pho BinhAddress and Info
Hit any of the growing number of shops in Pho Binh’s Vietnamese empire to experience piping-hot bliss in the form of beef noodle soup. We suggest adding silky, soft bone marrow to the already rich and fatty beef broth to take things to a more serious level of comfort.
The Original Ninfa’s on NavigationAddress and Info
Fact: Mama Ninfa is credited with igniting the “fajita craze” that ultimately introduced Tex-Mex to Americans across the country. Served on a searingly hot comal alongside fat handmade tortillas (because there is no other way), housing some of Mama’s outside skirt steak remains a Houstonian right of passage to this day.
Killen’s BarbecueAddress and Info
In Texas, brisket is king. Thankfully, Houston has have its very own Sultan of Smoke in chef Ronnie Killen, who stands by the fact that quality smoked beef needs nothing more than a salt and pepper rub. And as such, his brisket, with its glistening rendered-fat cap and meltingly tender finish, is nothing short of heaven. Hail to the Sultan.
Grilled Gulf oysters
CaracolAddress and Info
Gulf oysters on the half shell are good enough as is, but when this coastal-Mexican eatery tops them with a man-sized dollop of chipotle butter and breadcrumbs, then wood-roasts them to create a deep, golden crust, things get REAL. Pair them with happy hour bubbly at the bar.
Alamo TamaleAddress and Info
Warehouse District/East End
Houstonians are all about that tamale life (even our dive bars have tamale guys), and everyone knows the best kind are made by your abuela. The second best, however, are definitely the hand-rolled ones at this tamale shack. Bring cash to get the oily beauts loaded with things like jalapeño and cheese or shredded pork. Dip in both red and green sauce. Demolish. Rinse. Repeat.
Southern fried chicken
Frenchy’sAddress and Info
While there’s certainly no shortage of excellent fried bird in town, you’re not a real life Houstonian until you’ve had a Creole-spiced three piece & biscuit combo from this homegrown superstar. The chicken chain has plans to grow to over 500 national franchise locations in the next 10 years, but you’ll want to get your finger lickin’ on at the original Scott St one, which is still widely considered the best in town.
El Real Tex-MexAddress and Info
El Real’s adherence to tried & true vintage Tex-Mex means fresh lard is rendered in house, tortillas are handmade, and cheese enchiladas coated in deep-red chile con carne are sloppy as all hell. Word to the wise: If you’re not adding a fried egg and washing it down with one of the most perfect on-the-rocks margs in town, you're doing it wrong.
The Cajun StopAddress and Info
Our proximity to Louisiana and an influx of NOLA natives means the Big Easy’s favorite sandwich is near and dear to our hearts. With po-boys on restaurant menus all over town, your best bet is to get one from the most unassuming hole in the wall. And the best hole in the wall is the Cajun Stop, where the LA native owner pumps out cult favorites stuffed with crispy fried Gulf shrimp, extra sloppy roast beef, or all of the above, if you're going for the whole surf & turf thing. Which you should.
1. Frank's Americana Revival3736 Westheimer Rd, Houston
2. Cajun Kitchen6938 Wilcrest Dr Ste E, Houston
3. Laredo Taqueria915 Snover St, Houston
4. The Original Kolache Shoppe5404 Telephone Rd, Houston
5. Beaver's2310 Decatur St, Houston
6. Pho Binh12148 Bellaire Blvd, Houston
7. Ninfa's on Navigation2704 Navigation Blvd, Houston
8. Killen's BBQ3613 Broadway St, Pearland
9. Caracol2200 Post Oak Blvd Ste 160, Houston
10. Alamo Tamale & Taco2310 Navigation Blvd, Houston
11. Frenchy's3919 Scott St, Houston
12. El Real Tex-Mex Cafe1201 Westheimer Rd, Houston
13. The Cajun Stop2130 Jefferson St, Houston
This family-owned eatery serves up classic American comfort food in sophisticated digs. The White Star Bar, located in Frank's, offers an impressive selection of international wines.
This Viet-Cajun restaurant in Chinatown serves everything on the spectrum from Southern to Asian cuisine from blackened fish and chicken wings to po boys to its serious seafood boils — choose your own spice level and flavor to create your ultimate boil experience and add some other seafood basics and wings to your order. Take everything out to the back patio where you can cool your burning mouth with fresh air and a cold beer.
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.
Just outside The Loop in Golfcrest, The OG of Kolache shops, this mom & pop spot has been serving the Czech pastry since 1970. The Original Kolache Shoppe offers a much wider selection of flavors than you're used to at the donut shop next to your house; options range from breakfast style (stuffed with sausage, bacon or ham with egg, cheese and jalepeno) to sweet (cream cheese meets fruit, chocolate or cinnamon) to savory (polish sausage, brisket, chicken).
Although this Sixth Ward BBQ spot offers top notch ribs and brisket, it has two main attractions: the first is a smoky queso (made with smoked asadero cheese, green chillis, and pico de gallo), while the second is a bacon omelette biscuit: an expertly crafted cheese omelette stacked with copious amounts of bacon and sausage with a chipotle honey and cream gravy blanket. Other menu items include Southern-style fare like fried pickles, barbacoa empanadas, and creative mac 'n' cheese.
You'll find these pho joins dotted all over the city, but this location near Westchase is the only one open late, specifically until 3am on Friday and Saturday (the perfect landing spot after a bar crawl). The menu's full of standard pho options, but you won't even need to look at it, for there are only three little words that need be said here. Bone. Marrow. Pho. The flavorful broth and noodle soak the flavor of the baked bone marrow right up, and the Vietnamese spice gives it an edge you don't normally get in a pho bowl.
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.
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.
This glassy, sleek eatery in Midtown serves up seafood-centered Mexican fare including starters like salsa-topped oysters and headlining shrimp tacos and pan seared daily catches. Frequent happy hours, only at the bar, get you plenty of liquored up treats with salted rims and leafy garnishes like the Cuba Moderna with rum aged over 12 years.
These tasty tamales served cafeteria style are of Houston legend: loaded with seasoned brisket, delicately wrapped in corn husk, they're so flavorful that you probably can't eat just one.
This Houston chain is the real Southerner's answer to tired fried chicken brands that just don't even try anymore. Founded by a New Orleans native, Frenchy's serves up spicy fried chicken and other Creole staples like jambalaya, gumbo, and collard greens, and it proves that good food and fast food aren't mutually exclusive. Go big with a family sized box full of ten pieces of breast, wings, and thigh meat. Whether or not you choose to share it is up to you.
Located in the refurbished Tower Theater building in Houston's Montrose neighborhood, El Real serves vintage Tex-Mex. That means fresh lard is rendered in house, tortillas are handmade, and chili powder is ground fresh from lightly toasted anchos and cumin seeds. The most popular order is the signature three-cheese enchiladas in chili con carne sauce with a fried egg on top, but the tacos, whose shells are cooked to puffy perfection à la San Antonio, are a must-try.
We could all take a lesson in loving thy neighbor from The Cajun Stop, East Downtown’s homage to Louisiana cuisine. The Texas outpost for all things Creole, The Cajun Stop will take you across state lines -- from Houston to The Big Easy -- with its authentic food and drink offerings. Enjoy Creole classics like po-boys, seafood gumbo, crawfish (boiled and served with corn and potatoes), and of course, frozen daiquiris at this fast-casual, Louisiana-loving restaurant.