For people who live on the north side of Houston long enough, it might seem as if the options when it comes to unique culinary experiences are almost nonexistent. In an ocean of tiresome chain restaurants, greasy fast food and watered-down, Americanized cuisines, it can be difficult to experience real flavor without investing time, gas and mileage to venture to Chinatown, Midtown or the Heights.
However, if you look closely enough, you might be able to find the wonderful cuisines of the world within just a few miles from home. With Houston’s ever-expanding food scene and its melting pot bubbling at the brim, it’s impossible for the Inner Loop to contain all the wonderful dining options it's known for. Here are five must-visit restaurants on the northwest side that stay true to their heritages.
Taiko, 11037 FM 1960 West
Taiko is the perfect place to experience genuine, homestyle Japanese cooking and true hospitality. The location may be nondescript, but the mom-and-pop team plates some truly beautiful dishes nonetheless.
Try the omurice, a fluffy, fried, rice-filled omelette served with perfectly fried pork cutlets. Also, try delicious izakaya-style squid, or fried taro root in a savory crab and dashi sauce. The Japanese-style spicy pork ribs are truly a fall-off-the-bone delight, glazed in a sweet and spicy sauce that brings the dish together and makes for a wonderful experience. The dessert options are works of art, such as the white carrot bavarois and persimmon mousse. The rolled egg omelette, seasoned with savory bonito, is downright delectable.
Not only is the service humble, charming and sincere, but Taiko also offers omakase, as well as seasonal dishes. However, allow plenty of time for the visit, as everything is prepared fresh and takes time. That's okay, since flavor and presentation such as this should be taken slow and savored.
Punta Cana Caribbean Restaurant, 17776 Tomball Parkway
In the mood to go farther south of the border than Mexican cuisine? Stop into Punta Cana, a Dominican and Puerto Rican-inspired eatery located just outside of Willowbrook Mall that is easy to overlook. The menu options include familiar sides and appetizers such as tostones, empanadas and yucca fries. Entrées include unique offerings of meat and seafood such as camarones guisados, a shrimp entrée cooked in tomato sauce, and the rabo encendido, oxtails marinated in adobo, bitter orange and garlic and served in a spicy tomato-based sauce.
If you’ve never tried mofongo, a dish of mashed plantains served with pork cracklings, Punta Cana is a good place to start. The selection of mofongo-style dishes include steak, chicken, shrimp, pork and cheese options.
Zara’s Mediterranean Kitchen, 415 Rayford
Another small and hidden gem off the beaten path, Zara’s plates up amazing Mediterranean food that rivals that found inside the Loop. Here, there are tender dolmades, crispy-tender falafel, pillowy pita bread and smooth-as-silk hummus and kibbeh.
The entrées are generous, and can easily feed two people. Gyro platters and flavorful basmati rice, juicy and meaty kebabs and shawarma are a few of the most notable. Zara’s also serves up some wonderful pick-your-own mezze suitable for omnivores, carnivores and herbivores alike.
Banh Somtum, 13420 State Highway 249
Banh Somtum is a rare find on the northwest side with its Laotian cuisine offerings. Reminiscent of Asia Market Restaurant’s original Cavalcade location, Banh Somtum is a charming eatery with exquisite flavor tucked along 249. Here you can dine in on some wonderful Laotian dishes, such as the tum muah, a papaya salad with pork rinds, eggs and salted crab. The Lao-style jerky or sausage is a must-try, served with tender sticky rice and dipping sauces. Kuai tiao ruea, or "boat noodles," is a meaty dish that's a curious marriage of spicy, sweet and sour flavors.
More well-known dishes include tom yum soup and pad Thai dishes, as well as satay skewers and fried rice. Do be mindful of the spice levels here, as this restaurant's spice scale is not what you might expect. Ask service staff for guidance.
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Pho Danh, 11049 FM 1960
First and foremost: Don’t expect traditional table service. It’s no-frills, to-the-point service that is quick and efficient. The menu is equally straightforward: It’s pho. No vermicelli dishes, no spring rolls or other typical Vietnamese fare. It is all pho, all day.
That said, Pho Danh on 1960 has some of the best Vietnamese noodle soup in the area. Here there are more options than usual, such as various pho bowl sizes (kids, small, large and even extra-large), add-ons such as extra noodles or broth, as well as different noodle styles.
For dessert and drink options, there are Vietnamese-style coffees and puddings, such as white or red bean pudding and grass jelly, to name a few. Other drinks include refreshing, house-made soybean milk, salty lemon and plum sodas, and even an egg yolk and condensed milk soda.