Food & Drink

The Most Iconic Dishes in Houston (and Where to Get Them)

Published On 01/25/2016 Published On 01/25/2016

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 Revival

Chicken-fried steak

Frank’s Americana Revival 

Address and Info

River Oaks

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 Kitchen

Viet-Cajun crawfish

Cajun Kitchen

Address and Info

Alief

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.

Brooke Viggiano/Thrillist

Breakfast tacos

Laredo Taqueria

Address and Info

Multiple locations

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.

Brooke Viggiano/Thrillist

Kolache

The Original Kolache Shoppe

Address and Info

Gulfgate/Pine Valley

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.

Courtesy of Beaver's

Chile con queso

Beaver’s Ice House

Address and Info

Washington

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. 

Flickr/T.Tseng

Pho

Pho Binh

Address and Info

Multiple locations

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 Navigation

Fajitas

The Original Ninfa’s on Navigation

Address and Info

East End

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 BBQ

Barbecue brisket

Killen’s Barbecue

Address and Info

Pearland

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. 

Flickr/T.Tseng

Grilled Gulf oysters

Caracol

Address and Info

Galleria 

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.

Flickr/Southern Foodways Alliance

Tamales

Alamo Tamale

Address 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.

Frenchy's Chicken

Southern fried chicken 

Frenchy’s

Address and Info

Multiple locations

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-Mex Cafe

Cheese enchiladas

El Real Tex-Mex

Address and Info

Montrose

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 Stop

Po-boys

The Cajun Stop

Address and Info

Downtown

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. 

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Brooke Viggiano is a Houston writer who prefers everything in her life be smothered in cheese, gravy, and chipotle butter. Follow her gravy-coated thoughts @BrookeViggiano.

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1. Frank's Americana Revival 3736 Westheimer Rd, Houston, TX 77027

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.

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2. Cajun Kitchen 6938 Wilcrest Dr Ste E, Houston, TX 77072

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.

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3. Laredo Taqueria 915 Snover St, Houston, TX 77007 (Washington)

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.

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4. The Original Kolache Shoppe 5404 Telephone Rd, Houston, TX 77087

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).

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5. Beaver's 2310 Decatur St, Houston, TX 77007

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.

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6. Pho Binh 12148 Bellaire Blvd, Houston, TX 77072 (Montrose)

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.

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7. Ninfa's on Navigation 2704 Navigation Blvd, Houston, TX 77003 (East End)

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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8. Killen's BBQ 3613 Broadway St, Pearland, TX 77581 (Pearland)

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.

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9. Caracol 2200 Post Oak Blvd Ste 160, Houston, TX 77056 (Uptown)

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.

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10. Alamo Tamale & Taco 2310 Navigation Blvd, Houston, TX 77003 (East End)

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.

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11. Frenchy's 3919 Scott St, Houston, TX 77004 (Midtown)

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.

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12. El Real Tex-Mex Cafe 1201 Westheimer Rd, Houston, TX 77006 (Montrose)

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 Ă  la San Antonio, are a must-try.

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13. The Cajun Stop 2130 Jefferson St, Houston, TX 77003 (Downtown)

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.

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