Big Tex Road Trip: 10 Essential Restaurants Across Texas

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In a few weeks, the Houston Press will publish a Texas road trip guide that will challenge readers to ride from the known to the unknown. The Lone Star State is 268,820 square miles — almost twice the size of the entire country of Germany — and when exploring such a vast place, people need to eat. For the most memorable trip, skip the ubiquitous chain restaurants that line the highways and choose some of the best and most historic restaurants in Texas. 

Here are ten restaurants picked from all across Texas that are essential to the journey. Look for more in our forthcoming Big Tex Road Trip guide, and leave your own suggestions in the comments below!

Houston Area (Galveston, Bryan-College Station)

Hugo's, 1600 Westheimer

If a chef has been a James Beard finalist five times, that means there’s probably good reason for it. In Hugo Ortega’s case, there are several and one of those reasons is his eponymous restaurant, Hugo’s. It first opened in 2002 and originally was created to showcase interior Mexican cuisine. At the time, Houston had plenty of Tex-Mex options, but Ortega didn’t see examples of the food he had grown up with, so he and wife and notable restaurateur Tracy Vaught changed that.

The sumptuous Sunday brunch is always packed with Houstonians helping themselves to all-you-can-eat ceviche, roasted fish and moles. All of that is available through the rest of the week, as well as appetizers and entrées, but that’s just a small portion of the extensive menu. There are hearty dishes, like cabrito or tender roasted goat, and one of the most interesting and flavorful vegetarian platters found anywhere.

Ortega’s brother Ruben leads the pastry program, and the restaurant even makes its own chocolate from roasted cacao beans, so splurges like the cinnamon-laced hot chocolate and pyramid cake are absolute musts.

Gaido's, 3828 Seawall, Galveston

It’s almost impossible to think of Galveston dining and not think of Gaido's. It was founded in 1911 by San Giacinto Gaido and is still family-owned to this day. It has not only long been a bastion of Gulf seafood, but also helped define the marriage of coastal cuisine and white-tablecloth dining.

Don’t-miss dishes include the trio of soups — gumbo, bisque and the soup of the day — fresh Gulf oysters and the famous fried platter of Gulf shrimp, seasonal seafood, tenderloin of Texas catfish and “stuffing balls,” close kin to hush puppies.

North Texas (Dallas-Fort Worth, Denton, Waco)

Fearing's, 2121 McKinney, Dallas

Dean Fearing is one of the fathers of Southwest cuisine, along with chef Robert Del Grande of the newly rechristened Cafe Annie in Houston. (Fun fact: The two chefs are both James Beard Best Chef Southwest winners, fast friends and musicians who not only have played for events but actually cut an album together called Bliss & Blisters.) After spending 20 years as the executive chef of the prestigious Mansion On Turtle Creek, Fearing established his namesake restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton in Dallas.

There, diners can experience the Southwestern cuisine that made Fearing famous, including Dean’s tortilla soup and Dr Pepper-braised rosewood ranch short ribs with "loaded" whipped potatoes and crispy tobacco onions. The chef, though, has never stopped experimenting with other cuisines, so don’t be entirely surprised to see unusual, sophisticated dishes like Tsukiji Market hamachi crudo with hami melon, candied prosciutto, marcona almonds and ponzu pearls on the menu.

Check out the video that features Fearing's chef de cuisine, Eric Dreyer, and pastry chef, Jill Bates, making some of the restaurant's notable dishes. 

Joe T. Garcia's, 2201 North Commerce, Fort Worth

Joe and Jesusa (“Jessie”) Garcia (who became known as “Mamasuez”) started a little 16-seat Mexican restaurant known as “Joe’s Place” in 1935.

Joe died too soon, and Mamasuez and youngest daughter Esperanza “Hope” Lancarte were the ones who kept the business going. To this day, the restaurant is still family-owned and -operated. Hope became the next grande dame of the business until her death in 2014, and the kids of the family have all grown up in the business.

The restaurant grew up, too, and these days, Joe T. Garcia’s takes up an entire city block and can seat 1,200 people. It was named one of “America’s Classics” by the James Beard Foundation in 1998.

Among the features are big, gorgeous patios with gurgling fountains, where diners enjoy classic Tex-Mex dishes like fajitas, tamales and flautas with, of course, a margarita on the side.

To learn more, check out the Foodways Texas website, which has an oral history of the restaurant from family members Jody, Joe and Lanny Lancarte. 

East Texas/Piney Woods (Beaumont, Huntsville, Nacogdoches, Tyler)

Jucy's Hamburgers, Longview

Jucy’s Hamburgers was established in 1980 and has been repeatedly cited as having some of the best burgers in Texas, including by Texas Highways Magazine in November 2015. The secret to this place's burgers and fries is a lot of hard work. Jucy's grinds its own beef and cuts the potatoes for the fries fresh every morning. There are, of course, classic hamburgers and cheeseburgers, but other options include toppings like blue cheese and grilled onions.

The menu is charming, and while the burgers are the big draw, old-school lunch items like Frito salad and the hamburger steak plate with grilled onion are tempting, comforting options.

Jucy’s has now grown to five locations and even serves classic breakfast fare like omelettes, pancakes and taquitos.

Panhandle (Lubbock, Amarillo, Midland, Odessa, Abilene)

Perini Ranch Steakhouse, 3002 FM 89, Buffalo Gap

Rancher Tom Perini and his wife, Lisa, founded their steakhouse in 1983 after Tom realized he gravitated more to being a cowboy cook than actually working with the cattle. In 2014, the James Beard Foundation named the steakhouse one of “America’s Classics.” Diners from all over Texas flock to the expansive ranch mainly for the thick steaks grilled over mesquite, but other favorite dishes include green chile hominy, Cajun-style catfish and whiskey bread pudding.

It’s even possible to turn a visit to Perini Ranch into a little vacation, as there’s lodging available on-site at the Main House and Camp House.

Hill Country (San Antonio/Bexar County, Austin/Travis County, San Marcos, Wimberley)  

Foreign & Domestic, 306 East 53rd, Austin

Foreign & Domestic represents some of the best of what modern Austin dining has to offer. It’s casual, set up like a diner and serves marvelous, complex dishes with honest ingredients. If Foreign & Domestic had a motto, it wouldn’t be anything like “Keep Austin Weird.” It would be “Keep Austin Tasty.”

In fact, Foreign & Domestic and its chef, Ned Elliot, are so good that it’s not unusual for Houstonians to make regular pilgrimages just to dine there, perhaps also making barbecue stops on the way in Lockhart and Taylor. That’s about 300 miles, round trip, and it’s not as if Houston is lacking in amazing restaurants.

The chef’s counter is the best place to watch the show. Along the countertop reside prepped vegetables, herbs and other garnishes that look as if they came straight from the farm (probably because they did, since Foreign & Domestic sources from places such as Animal Farm in Cat Spring). From that point, watch the staff pull together dishes in which good French technique meets Texas ingredients. The menu changes regularly, but just a few examples are Bandera quail with basil-fed escargot, barley, rutabaga and red cabbage and roasted day boat scallops with morels, English peas, pommes purées, chive oil and red wine.

Cured, San Antonio. 306 Pearl Parkway #101

San Antonio is in the midst of a huge dining revival. Forget the River Walk. It’s long been mostly taken over by chain restaurants that could be found in any other major city. (One exception: The Esquire Tavern is one of the best bars in the city and has a good food program as well.)

The most notable restaurants in San Antonio these days are at street level, and one major hub of the dining revival is at the former Pearl Brewery. The restaurant name, “Cured,” has a dual meaning. It refers not only to the extensive charcuterie program but also to James Beard-nominated chef Steve McHugh's battling — and beating — lymphoma.

That’s inspirational, but there’s a different kind of inspiration all over the menu and the drink list, too. Obviously, the “pick your own” charcuterie plate is a popular starter. From there, delve into light dishes like the farmer’s market plate or bring friends for a big, pre-planned meal, such as the three-course duck dinner. (Order 48 hours in advance.)

At any given time, there’s a small selection of hard-to-find craft beer from Texas, such as Southern Star Black Crack. The Milk & Honey dessert, a honey cake with sweet cream ice cream, honeycomb candy and “milk jam,” is a perfect way to end the meal that’s not overwhelming.

West Texas (Big Bend, Marfa, Alpine, Terlingua, Marathon, El Paso)

H&H Car Wash and Coffee Shop, 701 East Yandell, El Paso

The name of this humble El Paso staple never lets onto the fact that it’s so much more than a car wash. Locals and visitors alike gravitate to H&H for classic Mexican fare like huevos rancheros and chile Colorado. It’s a no-frills joint, and owner Maynard Haddad is the famous curmudgeon at the center of it.

It’s a time capsule, so much so that when we called to ask for photos, the lady who answered the phone said, “Sorry, we don’t have any. We don’t have a computer here, either.” We did, however, find the cool video so you can see for yourself what the combination car wash and restaurant is like.

South Texas (Corpus Christi, Brownsville, Weslaco, South Padre, Rockport)

Glow, 1815 Broadway, Rockport

The quiet coastal town of Rockport, Texas, is a favorite of retirees, snowbirds (vacationers who flee the north during the cold months) and fishermen. It seems like one of the most unlikely places to find a sophisticated, chef-driven restaurant, but that is exactly what Glow is. It was founded in a little boathouse by Karey Butterworth and David Swartwout in 2011.

Inside, the restaurant is blissful and quiet. The menu makes the most of the local culinary wealth, like Gulf fish and seafood as well as Texas game meats. Even the sea salt comes from Rockport. The Game & Gulf Plate, with grilled wild boar sausage, seared fish of the day, sautéed shrimp, fried shrimp and oysters, is one of the best ways to experience all Glow has to offer. There’s a small but astute cocktail menu with both classics, like the French 75, and original concoctions, like the After Glow with vodka, lavender, orange and honey. Wines by the bottle are very reasonably priced, too.

Take a look inside the restaurant and watch chef Butterworth prepare a shrimp recipe in the video. 

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