Houston has always had a vibrant food scene, but it’s only recently that chefs and restaurants in the most populous city in Texas got the nation buzzing. Houston now has the kind of buzz that motivates chefs like FT33’s Matt McCallister to drive down from Dallas with his team for a full-on food weekend, the kind that lures A Life Worth Eating’s Adam Goldberg for a taste of Vietnamese food and barbecue. Houston earned the number seven spot on the New York Times’ 46 Places to Go in 2013, ahead of Istanbul and Oslo. The reason? Ten of them are right here. (Hint: It’s about the food.)
1. THE MASTERS OF MEAT
If there’s one thing you can be sure of when you visit the Bayou City, it’s a fantastic steak or burger, but let us not forget the 'cue. Meat maestro and Cordon Bleu–trained chef Ronnie Killen set out to produce what he calls “the best barbecue, period.” Food critics, barbecue aficionados, and the eating public agree: The brontosaurus-size ribs and brisket at Killen’s Barbecue (pictured) are the best in town, if not the entire state. All the major national steak chains are here, but local favorites such as Perry’s (which has jumped the state line), Taste of Texas, Pappas Bros., Vic & Anthony’s, and Killen’s Steakhouse have established Houston’s homegrown chops. As for burgers, some say the best are at Bernie’s Burger Bus, a food truck turned brick-and-mortar, where lines form for Justin Turner’s school-themed burgers, like the Homeroom, topped with caramelized onions, chipotle mayo, and a fried egg. Others remain loyal to burger tradition at Hubcap Grill and Christian’s Tailgate Bar & Grill, or pledge allegiance to the upscale beauties at Mockingbird Bistro. However you come down, Houston’s burgers rule.
2. THE LOCAL CHAMPIONS
“We know it sounds crazy, but before you dismiss us as pasture-to-plate and farm-to-table obsessed, consider the hedonistic bottom line: A perfect ear of corn, a lovely lump of goat cheese simply tastes better HERE.” So went the motto at Ryan Pera and Morgan Weber’s Revival Market, which turned out to be a prelude for their new Italian Heights hot spot, Coltivare, where long lines and three-hour waits for a table prove that locally grown pasture-to-plate food is in. At Randy Evans's seasonal Haven, diners wait patiently for tomato season to get a taste of his heirloom tomato sundae, topped with balsamic and lemon–olive oil sorbet. [Editor's note: Turns out Haven shuttered the day this story went live.] Sorrel Urban Bistro rewrites its menu daily to feature whatever’s freshly delivered. For both Local Foods (the BLT and butternut squash salad are pictured) and Benjy’s, chef-partner Dylan Murray takes the farmers’ market approach, regularly hitting the Saturday market to load up his truck with the season’s freshest.
3. THE AMERICAN DREAMERS
It takes guts and ambition, luck, and a lot of hard work, but restaurant dreams can come true here. It’s possible—as in the case of Roberto Castre (pictured, with sous-chefs Alejandro Betancourt and Masaharu Fukuda), his sister Rita, and brother-in-law Carlos—to start with nothing but a Facebook page and a moonlight catering business and gradually save enough to open a 36-seat Peruvian restaurant, Latin Bites Cafe, and eventually double its size. Then there’s Minh Nguyen, who left a corporate job and plunked down his life savings on a banh mi shop, only to turn it into one of Houston’s most beloved Vietnamese restaurants, Cafe TH. Deepak Doshi left behind a six-figure income to open a coffee house and community center, The Doshi House. He hosts poetry readings and art openings and offers nutritious, affordable vegan food like the crazy-good Mumbai Streets sandwich. The three friends behind Eatsie Boys—Matt Marcus, Ryan Soroka, and Alex Vassilakidis—got together to launch a food truck, which eventually allowed them to open a brick-and-mortar café and their very own craft brewery, 8th Wonder.
4. THE OUT-OF-TOWNERS
Corporate chains have been scoping Houston for years, but it’s only recently that hot restaurants and chefs have had their eyes on Houston as the place to be. It started with Austin’s Uchi, which opened its third location in the heart of Houston, serving delicately composed modern Japanese food (pictured). On the strength of one weeklong visit, chef and restaurateur Philippe Verpiand moved his entire family from San Diego to set up the French bistro Etoile Cuisine et Bar. After closing his critically acclaimed restaurant in Atlanta, Chris Kinjo likewise chose Houston to debut MF Sushi. They keep on coming: This year, Northern California’s Bradley Ogden brought two concepts to Houston, Funky Chicken and Bradley’s Fine Diner, with another, Ogden Pour Society, on the way. And last month, pastry chef Roy Shvartzapel and his ambitious crew of bakers opened Common Bond Café & Bakery. Houston welcomed them with open arms: Common Bond’s croissants are already legendary—the bakers can barely keep up with demand.
5. THE DOWNTOWN RENOVATORS
You could say it began with OKRA Charity Saloon, which donates all profits to a good cause. Sound crazy? It works because Houstonians like to give, and if altruism involves drinking a cocktail, it’s really no hardship at all. OKRA was at the forefront of downtown’s revitalization, in late 2012. Soon after, Goro & Gun, Batanga, Captain Foxheart’s Bad News Bar, and mezcaleria The Pastry War joined the ranks. Once again, downtown is a bona fide destination for a night on the town. The recent opening of El Big Bad—a “gastro-cantina”—brings additional glitter to a formerly downtrodden downtown. El Big Bad is worth a go just to gawk at the five-panel mural by local artist Kevin Hernandez, or to Instagram the two-story case of glowing red tequila infusions, but the real draw is the food and drinks: some of the best tequila cocktails in Houston (pictured), with chef-driven Mexican food to match by local star Jonathan Jones.
6. THE REALITY STARS
TV personalities preach Houston’s food gospel to the nation. You might remember Bryan Caswell from Season 3 of The Next Iron Chef. Caswell’s the gentle giant who stood strong against Ming Tsai and Marc Forgione. Though he didn’t win, his Midtown restaurant Reef continues to thrive; same with his casual concepts, Little Bigs and El Real Tex-Mex. Could pastry chef Rebecca Masson have been any more lovable with her pink cast in Season 2 of Top Chef Just Desserts? Houston loves Masson’s personality and her fluffernutters, something we’ll soon have daily access to (her Kickstarter-funded Fluff Bake Bar is opening soon). As for Season 11 Hell’s Kitchen winner Ja’Nel Witt, staying put in Houston was a good decision (she didn’t want that snazzy Vegas job with Gordon Ramsay anyway, right?)—she’s just been named executive chef at Corner Table. Despite opening new locations in Playa del Carmen, Aquiles Chavez (pictured—his programs on Fox and Utilisima are in syndication to approximately 40 million viewers) has his base here, at La Fisheria. Then there’s Chef Monica Pope of Beaver’s and the locally inspired Sparrow Bar + Cookshop—Pope was one of the first Houston chefs to appear on national television, in Top Chef Masters Season 2. Alvin Schultz (Master Chef Season 2) and Christine Ha (winner of Master Chef Season 3) also consider Houston home.
7. THE FAMILIES
You’ll know them by their eponymously named restaurants: Tony’s and Vallone’s, Ninfa’s, Damian’s, Molina’s Cantina, Goode Company, Perry’s Steakhouse and Grille, Paulie’s, D’Amico’s, Pappas Bros. Steakhouse. The people behind these places, as well as Michael Cordúa (pictured, with David Cordúa), patriarch of Cordúa Restaurant Group (Américas, Churrascos, Artista, Amazón Grill), or the Tcholakians, who own Phoenicia Specialty Foods, are among Houston’s proudest and most successful food families, connected through sons and daughters, uncles and wives, nephews and cousins. It’s thanks to them that there are killer fajitas at Ninfa’s on Navigation, melt-in-your-mouth enchiladas at Molina’s, handmade Italian pastas at Tony’s, out-of-this-world spaghetti and meatballs at Damian’s, unforgettable campechanas at Goode Company Seafood, and probably the best pork chop of your life at Perry’s.
8. THE TRUCKERS
Cooking Channel’s Eat St. has come to Houston twice to profile the truck scene. Writer Tiffany Harelik even published a Houston edition of her cookbook, Trailer Food Diaries, in 2013. Houston just wouldn’t be Houston without mobile restaurateurs, toiling in the punishing summer heat. Search the Twitter hashtag #foodtrucklove, and you’ll find popular trucks like Koagie Hots (Korean hoagies and hot dogs, pictured), The Rice Box, The Waffle Bus, Chi’Lantro (Mexican fusion), Oh My Gogi! (Korean bulgogi), Phamily Bites (pho), Muiishi Makirritos (sushi rolls), Ladybird (Southern), Monster PBJ, and H-town StrEATs. That’s by no means an exhaustive list, but it’s a taste of Houston’s food truck culture, which grows stronger by the day, with offerings that run several gamuts, from high-end hot dogs to ramen burgers, Spam musubi to chicken and waffles.
9. THE GLOBAL SPECIALISTS
Craving Vietnamese? Indian? Korean? How about South African or Ethiopian? Houston ranks first as the nation’s most ethnically diverse city, and our cooking follows suit. Cruise the strip of Bellaire Boulevard between Southwest Freeway and Highway 6 to encounter Houston’s new “Chinatown,” with every Asian and Southeast Asian cuisine you can imagine. Taste Vietnamese beef seven ways at Saigon Pagolac, then move over to Mala Sichuan Bistro for spicy dumplings. Chinese barbecue hangs from the windows of Hong Kong Food Street, and Korean tofu houses like Jang Guem offer Korean barbecue and tofu soup. Viet-Cajun joints like Crawfish & Noodles (pictured, with Trong Nguyen) and Wild Cajun specialize in buttery-garlicky crawfish boils, while Vietnamese pho and banh mi places are as ubiquitous as McDonald’s. Head to Little India, on a small stretch of Hillcroft, for places like London Sizzler, purveyors of goat biryani and other Indo-Pakistani fare. Persian kebab shops like Garson are not far away, while a bit farther north off the I-10 freeway, Koreatown stretches along the street known as Long Point. Then there are the restaurateurs like Anita Jaisinghani and Donald Chang, who give traditional foods a modern makeover. Jaisinghani’s breakfast and vegetable thalis capture hearts at her Pondicheri, while at Nara, Chang does Korean barbecue with top-shelf meats like Wagyu tomahawk.
10. THE HONORED
Finally, there are the chefs who have made the world take notice. We’re talking about Chris Shepherd, the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef Southwest 2014, and Food & Wine’s Best New Chef 2013, telling the story of Houston’s food at Underbelly (pictured). There’s three-time James Beard nominee Hugo Ortega (Hugo’s, Caracol), whose cooking captures the true flavors of regional Mexico. At Kata Robata, JBF nominee Manabu Horiuchi wows with his deft touch and impeccable palate, serving modern Japanese plates alongside traditional preparations. Chefs Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan are Food & Wine’s People’s Best New Chef nominees, thanks to their restaurant-within-a-restaurant concept at The Pass and Provisions, where they cook some of the most avant-garde food in Houston. And last but not least there’s Justin Yu. In 2013, he was JBF Rising Star Chef of the Year semifinalist; this year, he's a Food & Wine Best New Chef. With his wife, Karen Man, Yu offers a produce-focused Gulf Coast tasting menu at Oxheart. They’ve given Houstonians a new appreciation for vegetables, which, in this sprawling metropolis of Flintstones ribs and Viet-Cajun crawfish, is saying something.
NEXT TRIP: OAKLAND
"Oakland is a town where creative types—including chefs, urban farmers, and edible entrepreneurs—can still take risks."
Photo credits: Killen's barbecue plate (top) by Kimberly Park; Michael and David Cordúa of Cordúa Restaurant Group by Julie Soefer; all other photos by Mai Pham
Mai Pham is a Houston-based freelance food and travel writer who is as happy scouring the Peruvian Amazon for chocolate as she is dining at a three-star Michelin restaurant in San Sebastián. Follow Mai on Twitter and Instagram for delicious finds around Houston and wherever her travels take her.