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By Eating Our Words
Check out all 100 dishes in our slideshow.
"Houston was more or less my Paris, or such Paris as I had," novelist Larry McMurtry wrote in a recent love letter to the Bayou City. His essay in the February issue of Texas Monthly found McMurtry waxing nostalgic about the Houston he once knew and the Houston he loves today.
"If I were to anatomize the six major cities more or less in order of urban merit," McMurtry continued, "I would now put Houston first by a large margin: It's a great city." His passion for our city is found in "its smells, its foods, its variety," and it's these very qualities that also have created an amazing culinary landscape in this port city, which writers such as former Houston Press food critic Robb Walsh have termed "the South's new Creole city."
John T. Edge, food historian and founder of the Southern Foodways Alliance, has a different moniker for Houston but one that also suits our vibrant and deeply entrenched diversity: Mutt City. "In this Texas megalopolis," Edge wrote in the August 2012 issue of Oxford American, "all latitudes and longitudes are accessible by way of a concrete Hot Wheels track and a four-barrel Pontiac."
What attracts people to Houston is a combination of "the new immigrant plus city-proud chef algebra that makes Houston the most vital place to eat in the South right now," Edge rightly noted. In its recent list of "The 46 Places to Go in 2013," The New York Times placed Houston at No. 7 — the only American city to make the Top 10 — specifically for our dining scene.
If you're looking to explore the amazing breadth of culinary options our city has to offer, take this list and get started. You may not make it through even half of the dishes before wanting to write a love letter of your own.
No. 100: Chili cheese mac at Jus' Mac 2617 Yale, 713-622-8646
The chili cheese macaroni and cheese at Jus' Mac is a thing of beauty and never once over the top. The meaty homemade chili is wound through the creamy sauce and pasta, and a handful of Fritos on top works to provide a nice contrast of textures between the springy pasta and silky sauce.
No. 99: Texas Turkey sandwich at Spec's Deli 2410 Smith, 713-526-8787
The Texas Turkey at Spec's Deli provides that little extra kick a Texan looks for in a sandwich: Soft jalapeño-cheese bread envelops a simple filling of roasted turkey breast, lettuce and tomatoes that's kicked up with raw red onions, pepper jack cheese and jalapeño-lime mayo.
No. 98: Custard at Petite Sweets 2700 W. Alabama, 713-520-7007
Egg-based frozen custard is still a bit of a novelty in Houston, although it's been available at places like Connie's and Ritter's for years. The sweet, smooth, tangy custard that Susan Molzan and Liz Walsh make at Petite Sweets is very similar to those classics but with an important addition: a completely irresistible hot fudge topping made with chocolate, Kahlúa and vanilla that's Molzan's mother's own recipe.
No. 97: Caprichos mixtos at Taqueria Monterrey Chiquito 1713 Telephone, 713-923-8898
On the caprichos mixtos platter, you get two tacos de trompo and three tacos filled with fatty cubes of bistec that are even better when topped with some of Taqueria Monterrey Chiquito's mild green sauce. These aren't meant to be spicy — appreciate the savory pull of meat against cilantro and the crunch of raw onions.
No. 96: Pineapple-wasabi burger at Lankford Grocery 88 Dennis, 713-522-9555
Lankford has remained open for 75 years by offering a mix of classic burgers and innovative new favorites. The pineapple-wasabi burger pulls together beautifully with sharp wasabi-flavored mayonnaise and crunchy red onions under a mantle of melted Swiss cheese.
No. 95: Farmers market pizza at MKT Bar 1001 Austin, 832-360-2222
What makes MKT Bar's food offerings just different enough is the Levantine slant that the Tcholakian family bring to old favorites, like the fruit- and veggie-laden Farmer's Market pizza: Spinach, red peppers, green onions, roasted shallots, roasted pears, roasted apples and kefalograviera cheese are all thrown onto a thick, rustic, Kalamata-olive-filled crust that's salty and savory.
No. 94: Potatoes at Money Cat Brunch
No. 93: Breakfast tacos at Sunrise Taquito 5601 Memorial, 713-880-5959
Mexican madres and abuelitas bustle around the open kitchen tucked inside a Shell station each morning, dishing up plates of huevos rancheros with beans and homestyle potatoes or soft flour tortillas stuffed with chorizo and eggs — and it's the fat, griddled tortillas that make Sunrise's breakfast tacos the best.
No. 92: Hot dog at Tacos D.F.
The hot dogs at the Tacos D.F. food truck on Long Point at Witte are hybrid Mexican-American dogs and only $1 each. On top are the diced onions and tomatoes of a Sonoran dog as well as mustard and mild jalapeño peppers. Although there's no bacon, the hot dog has been griddled just the same, picking up the fatty carnitas and barbacoa flavors from the grill.
No. 91: Avocado gelato at Frozen Cafe 9889 Bellaire, 713-370-8948
The creative gelato flavors at Frozen Cafe are what keeps me coming back, although avocado in a sweet application isn't all that unusual. The fruit is often used in desserts across Asia, and it's easy to see why here: The mild avocado works easily as the base for a sweet, creamy cup of gelato.