Travel & Leisure recently named Houston as America's Best Burger City. But as many Houstonians would tell the nation, Houston is known for much more than just burgers. It's a melting pot of culture and cuisine, and thus offers awesome dishes beyond the typical burger, steak and barbecue. Here are the Top 5 foods best found in Houston.
5. Dim sum
With Houston holding two Chinatowns--the original in eastern downtown and the current on the southwest side--it is not a surprise that this city is home to some of the best Chinese food in the nation. And one of the best ways to sample Chinese (Cantonese, to be specific) food is through dim sum, ordering numerous small dishes from food carts that roam the restaurant aisles. Because I love to sample a variety and because my palate gets bored easily, dim sum is my preferred method of dining --I can taste eight different dishes and not feel overstuffed at the end of my meal.
Some of my favorite dim sum places are Fung's Kitchen or Golden Palace, both located on the outskirts of the "new" Chinatown in southwest Houston. Dim sum is typically served from morning until mid-afternoon, but if you're hankering for dim sum outside of those hours, venture to Dim Sum King (located in the heart of "new" Chinatown), where you check your desired dishes on a clipboard and send your order off to the kitchen. There are no authentic food carts here, but that is the small price you pay to have dim sum for dinner.
4. Chicken 'n waffles
Being part of the Deep South where everything can be fried and eaten at even nine o'clock in the morning, I couldn't exclude the sweet and savory combination of fried chicken and syrupy waffles. While many of my friends from elsewhere shudder at the thought of such an odd pair, I tell them it's like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on steroids; that is, you get the best of both salty and sweet in one bite bursting with awesome goodness.
If you're looking for the authentic, greasy, no frills chicken 'n waffles, go to The Breakfast Klub where you'll find true Southern hospitality an accompaniment to your chicken 'n waffles. Or if you'd like a creative, more gourmet version, order the chicken 'n waffles at Zelko Bistro, where the tender chicken breasts come battered in Cap'n Crunch cereal--nothing like that to bring you back to childhood.
3. Banh mi thit, the Vietnamese baguette sandwich
Houston has the largest Vietnamese-American population in Texas and the third largest in the U.S. (only behind two California cities), and we are home to some of the best Vietnamese food in the country. When one thinks of Vietnamese cuisine, one thinks of the French-influenced deli sandwich served on a toasted baguette. Stuffed with fresh and pickled vegetables and an array of choice meats, and at roughly $3 a pop, these flavorful bites are gaining popularity among students, employees on lunch break, or just about anyone looking for a cheap but filling snack.
There are tons of delis to choose from in Houston; some of my favorite are Alpha Bakery & Deli (located in the Hong Kong mall on Bellaire and Boone); Lee's Sandwiches; the original Givral in the heart of Chinatown which I frequented as a child two decades ago (not to be mistaken with Les Givral's Kahve, which is less authentic and, well, just less); and Don Cafe (also in Chinatown).
2. Gulf Coast shellfish
Being near water translates to abundant sea critters on our plates. The shrimping industry drives the Texas Gulf Coast economy, followed closely by blue crab and oysters. And with New Orleans being relatively close to Houston, there's a large Cajun culinary influence as demonstrated by the many Cajun restaurants around town. In the hot climate of the South, people like to eat spicy foods. So in combining the two, we get delicious spicy shellfish: shrimp, crawfish, crab, and oysters cooked Cajun-style. If you prefer to eat something cold instead, there's always shrimp cocktail or oysters on the half shell, both of which taste great on a hot Houston summer day. For some good Cajun fare, try The Boiling Crab or Wild Cajun.
1. Pho, the Vietnamese noodle soup
The other popular Vietnamese dish is this savory noodle soup, perfect for a winter's day or a morning after too many cocktails. The broth is made by slow-cooking beef or chicken bones with star anise, ginger and onion. It is served with rice sticks, chopped cilantro and green onion, and additional vegetables and condiments which you add according to your liking: lime, Thai basil, bean sprouts, hoisin sauce, Sriracha, and so on. I have eaten pho in California, where there are reportedly more Vietnamese people than in Houston, but I have yet to have better noodle soup outside of Houston.
There are, of course, many, many places in Houston that serve pho. My goal is to try them all one day, but so far, I am loyal to Pho Danh for their no-frills menu: There are no spring rolls or egg rolls here--they practically do just one dish, and they do it well.
Have you been to any of these places? Do you have other suggestions for foods best found in Houston? Let me know in the comments section.