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.)
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.
7. Conscious Cafe's bean pies and burgers
How creole can a city truly be without attracting nearly every ethnic, political and religious group under the sun? The fact that a Nation of Islam restaurant like Conscious Cafe is thriving so far away from the group's roots in the North and Northeast is a testament to the fact that anyone can find a foothold here...as long as they have great food to back it up. And Conscious Cafe does, from its softly seasoned salmon burger to its warmly scented bean pies, always served with a smile.
6. Gulf seafood at Reef
Say what you will about Chef Bryan Caswell. He's a staunch advocate for Houston and for Gulf seafood, and it's the latter that shines at Reef. No other kitchen in town treats our local seafood with such respect, nor has any other restaurant been as instrumental in promoting so-called "trash fish" and gaining it a wider, more appreciative audience. Reef was also one of the first restaurants in town to offer "named" Gulf oysters.
5. Pho Binh trailer in South Houston
Where Houston really shines is in places like Pho Binh, small, nondescript, off-the-beaten-path and true to the Vietnamese roots of its owners. Can you call it the best pho in town? That's a stretch, given the incredible variety of wonderful Vietnamese restaurants in Houston. But is it in the upper echelon? Absolutely. And the fact that the little trailer runs out of soup every single day attests to that fact.
4. Bansuri food truck in Missouri City
Failing to mention the huge South Asian population in Houston -- and, of course, the tremendous amount of excellent Indian and Pakistani restaurants as a result -- would be incredibly remiss. Just drive over to Hillcroft and Highway 59 to take your pick from among the best in the city. But the Bansuri food truck in a far southwest corner of the city is a logical and fascinating extension of the South Asian dining scene here, a food truck that appeared and succeeded long before the food truck "movement" hit Houston. It cropped up as a useful outpost for quick chaat meals on the run, not to serve any trendier purpose. And the food here shows why it's done so well since then, especially the cinnamon and clove-scented dabeli that puts newly invented American sliders to shame.
3. Bootsie's heritage dinners and 3rd Coast menus
Way out in the wilds of Tomball, Randy Rucker and his band of young Turk chefs have been merrily transporting worldwide food trends to Texas, from hay-smoked mackerel to hyperlocal, ultra-fresh ingredients foraged from Houston's outer woods and fields. Rucker's 3rd Coast tasting menus -- our own Gulf Coast being the eponymous 3rd Coast here -- are the best example of the restaurant's cuisine, and its most affordable: $35 for six courses, another $25 for excellent wine pairings. The fact that Rucker and his team, such as pastry chef Chris Leung, are being recognized across the nation for their efforts only solidifies Bootsie's place as Houston's leading trendsetter in modern cuisine.
2. Los Dos Amigos' cheese enchiladas
It's simply not right to come to Houston and not eat good Tex-Mex. After all, it's so easily bastardized and ruined elsewhere, and Houston has such shining examples for the rest of the world. Go to Los Dos Amigos before it's completely swallowed up by Washington Avenue and indulge in a plate of gooey cheese enchiladas, topped with a fried egg and a thin, potent red sauce that's hopped up with vinegar. A plate of cheese enchiladas here engages all of your senses at once and doesn't let go of them until you've taken your last bite.
1. Bissonnet strip centers in Gulfton
Houston food blogger Bruce of Chili Bob's Houston Eats said it best about my favorite food neighborhood in town:
Bissonnet is one of our great food streets with a very wide diversity of eateries. As far as ethnic or national cuisines go it's probably most known for Mexican and Salvadoran but there is Greek, Italian, Cuban, Ethiopian, Nigerian, Vietnamese, Kosher, Caribbean, Filipino, Colombian, Pakistani and probably several others I've forgotten. The intersection of Hillcroft and Bissonnet has quite a diverse collection itself. Within a block are Hoagie's and More (Vietnamese/Salvadoran - a banh mi/pho/pupusa shop), Sheba (Ethiopian), Aroma Pizza Cafe (Kosher), Pupusa Buffet, Taqueria La Fogata, the venerable Droubi's (which I have just re-discovered after not having been for several years), a Honduran mobile unit and this place - a Turkish grocery.
While I wish there were more Ethiopian restaurants in town, Sheba Cafe is an amazing example of the cuisine. And right next door is one of my favorite "fusion" restaurants, Hoagies & More, which sells banh mi and pupusas...but no hoagies. There isn't a cuisine you can't find in Gulfton -- perhaps classic continental cuisine is the only thing that's excluded -- and it's all easily accessible for every budget, for every mode of transportation, for every socioeconomic status. Gulfton is the great equalizer, where the love of food is the only common denominator in its restaurants.
Collaborative chef-driven dinners, Grand Prize Bar when Feast serves dinner, cortados at Catalina Coffee, omakase and happy hours at Kata Robata, boudin at Pyburn's, Xuco Xicana, the Saigon "banh mi" burger at The Burger Guys, Wok n Roll, grilled oysters and crawfish at Wild Cajun, Revival Market, the newly revamped Yelapa Playa Mexicana and the Tierra Caliente taco truck at West Alabama Ice House.