10 Houston Restaurants Every Out-Of-Towner Should Visit

Texas barbecue done right at Gatlin's.
Texas barbecue done right at Gatlin's.
Photos by Katharine Shilcutt

On Wednesday afternoon, I mused that some day I hoped for visitors to Houston to feel as excited about our dining scene as I was about New York City's. The sheer breadth and depth of ethnic and regional cuisines present here is staggering, although it still has a long way to go before it approaches New York proportions.

I strongly agree with Robb Walsh's assertion that Houston is the South's "new creole city." And we have a lot to offer the rest of the food-loving nation right now as a result. I started thinking about the ten restaurants or food experiences that I would recommend to an out-of-towner eager to dive head-first into Houston's rich pool, and all of these are definitely head-first destinations -- no simple tourist attractions here.

But the great thing about all ten of these restaurants is that they're not merely novelties for out-of-towners; they're useful and well-loved by locals as well. And because of that, Houston can be content to know that even if rest of the world never discovers how wonderful this city truly is, the wonder will still be there for us to enjoy.

10. Barbecue and dirty rice at Gatlin's

Visitors naturally expect Houston to have a wealth of great barbecue. And while we do have some good places, the out-of-body experiences sought by true 'cue-hounds are often found very far outside the city limits. Not so with Gatlin's, where charming but distressingly odd hours give way to Texas barbecue done right: low and slow, with a thick smoke ring around a juicy brisket or rib meat that drops from the bone before your teeth even get to it. And the thickly liver-laced dirty rice abolishes the notion that a barbecue joint with good 'cue will have bad sides.

9. Cafe TH on Thursday nights

Minh Nguyen has completely transformed the old Vietnamese sandwich shop in the East End, not only offering vegan curries and pho alongside traditional favorites like xiu mai dia, but branching out into three-course, prix-fixe dinners that are only offered two nights a week. You never know what Nguyen is going to cook; you just show up and eat what he's concocted, usually a confluence of Vietnamese, Thai, American and French flavors and dishes that are all shockingly good. Cafe TH's dinners on Thursday and Friday nights have the feel of exclusive supper clubs and tend to fill up quickly. A recent dinner included miniature baked potatoes topped with chopped beef and bo kho sauce, banh cuon filled with pork and mushrooms, and a dessert of fried bananas. (And when dessert is cake, you're in for a real treat, as Nguyen himself always bakes them fresh each morning.)

One of Phoenicia's many counters.
One of Phoenicia's many counters.

8. Phoenicia's market and deli

What can be said about Phoenicia's sprawling international foods market that hasn't been said already? Phoenicia's transformation over time from a small market/deli on Dairy Ashford to the tremendous food force that it is now is a true Houston success story. A non-chain grocery store as a destination, where you can buy halal lamb next to Austrian spaetzle and Greek beer? That's Phoenicia, the United Nations of Houston.

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