Check out all 100 dishes in our slideshow.
"Houston was more or less my Paris, or such Paris as I had," novelist Larry McMurtry wrote in a recent love letter to the Bayou City. His essay in the February issue of Texas Monthly found McMurtry waxing nostalgic about the Houston he once knew and the Houston he loves today.
SLIDESHOW: 100 Favorite Dishes 2012
SIDEBAR: Valentine's Day Dining
BLOG POST: A Love Letter to Houston Food (and a Map to Guide You)
"If I were to anatomize the six major cities more or less in order of urban merit," McMurtry continued, "I would now put Houston first by a large margin: It's a great city." His passion for our city is found in "its smells, its foods, its variety," and it's these very qualities that also have created an amazing culinary landscape in this port city, which writers such as former Houston Press food critic Robb Walsh have termed "the South's new Creole city."
John T. Edge, food historian and founder of the Southern Foodways Alliance, has a different moniker for Houston but one that also suits our vibrant and deeply entrenched diversity: Mutt City. "In this Texas megalopolis," Edge wrote in the August 2012 issue of Oxford American, "all latitudes and longitudes are accessible by way of a concrete Hot Wheels track and a four-barrel Pontiac."
What attracts people to Houston is a combination of "the new immigrant plus city-proud chef algebra that makes Houston the most vital place to eat in the South right now," Edge rightly noted. In its recent list of "The 46 Places to Go in 2013," The New York Times placed Houston at No. 7 — the only American city to make the Top 10 — specifically for our dining scene.
If you're looking to explore the amazing breadth of culinary options our city has to offer, take this list and get started. You may not make it through even half of the dishes before wanting to write a love letter of your own.
No. 100: Chili cheese mac at Jus' Mac 2617 Yale, 713-622-8646
The chili cheese macaroni and cheese at Jus' Mac is a thing of beauty and never once over the top. The meaty homemade chili is wound through the creamy sauce and pasta, and a handful of Fritos on top works to provide a nice contrast of textures between the springy pasta and silky sauce.
No. 99: Texas Turkey sandwich at Spec's Deli 2410 Smith, 713-526-8787
The Texas Turkey at Spec's Deli provides that little extra kick a Texan looks for in a sandwich: Soft jalapeño-cheese bread envelops a simple filling of roasted turkey breast, lettuce and tomatoes that's kicked up with raw red onions, pepper jack cheese and jalapeño-lime mayo.
No. 98: Custard at Petite Sweets 2700 W. Alabama, 713-520-7007
Egg-based frozen custard is still a bit of a novelty in Houston, although it's been available at places like Connie's and Ritter's for years. The sweet, smooth, tangy custard that Susan Molzan and Liz Walsh make at Petite Sweets is very similar to those classics but with an important addition: a completely irresistible hot fudge topping made with chocolate, Kahlúa and vanilla that's Molzan's mother's own recipe.
No. 97: Caprichos mixtos at Taqueria Monterrey Chiquito 1713 Telephone, 713-923-8898
On the caprichos mixtos platter, you get two tacos de trompo and three tacos filled with fatty cubes of bistec that are even better when topped with some of Taqueria Monterrey Chiquito's mild green sauce. These aren't meant to be spicy — appreciate the savory pull of meat against cilantro and the crunch of raw onions.
No. 96: Pineapple-wasabi burger at Lankford Grocery 88 Dennis, 713-522-9555
Lankford has remained open for 75 years by offering a mix of classic burgers and innovative new favorites. The pineapple-wasabi burger pulls together beautifully with sharp wasabi-flavored mayonnaise and crunchy red onions under a mantle of melted Swiss cheese.
No. 95: Farmers market pizza at MKT Bar 1001 Austin, 832-360-2222
What makes MKT Bar's food offerings just different enough is the Levantine slant that the Tcholakian family bring to old favorites, like the fruit- and veggie-laden Farmer's Market pizza: Spinach, red peppers, green onions, roasted shallots, roasted pears, roasted apples and kefalograviera cheese are all thrown onto a thick, rustic, Kalamata-olive-filled crust that's salty and savory.
No. 94: Potatoes at Money Cat Brunch
No. 93: Breakfast tacos at Sunrise Taquito 5601 Memorial, 713-880-5959
Mexican madres and abuelitas bustle around the open kitchen tucked inside a Shell station each morning, dishing up plates of huevos rancheros with beans and homestyle potatoes or soft flour tortillas stuffed with chorizo and eggs — and it's the fat, griddled tortillas that make Sunrise's breakfast tacos the best.
No. 92: Hot dog at Tacos D.F.
The hot dogs at the Tacos D.F. food truck on Long Point at Witte are hybrid Mexican-American dogs and only $1 each. On top are the diced onions and tomatoes of a Sonoran dog as well as mustard and mild jalapeño peppers. Although there's no bacon, the hot dog has been griddled just the same, picking up the fatty carnitas and barbacoa flavors from the grill.
No. 91: Avocado gelato at Frozen Cafe 9889 Bellaire, 713-370-8948
The creative gelato flavors at Frozen Cafe are what keeps me coming back, although avocado in a sweet application isn't all that unusual. The fruit is often used in desserts across Asia, and it's easy to see why here: The mild avocado works easily as the base for a sweet, creamy cup of gelato.
No. 90: Chicken sandwich at JerryBuilt Homegrown Burgers 3501 W. Holcombe, 713-664-2874
The chicken patty at JerryBuilt is a special blend of chicken created just for the restaurant, which means the patty is never lopsided and always juicy. You can customize the sandwich to your liking at no extra cost, but I like it the same way owner Brooksy Smith does: topped with jalapeño cream cheese, bacon and Ernie's sauce (a blend of ketchup, Duke's mayonnaise and Wickles Pickles relish).
No. 89: Beer-battered asparagus at Hearsay 218 Travis, 713-225-8079
The asparagus inside the Saint Arnold beer-based batter at Hearsay is still bright green and crisp, while the batter gives a nice crunch as you work your way down the stalk.
No. 88: Honey Badger omelet at Kraftsmen Cafe 611 W. 22nd, 713-426-1300
The Honey Badger omelet is filled with dark orange chorizo and red onions, then topped with melting slices of havarti cheese. It comes with a couple slices of Kraftsmen's nutty whole-grain bread, which you can top with jam.
No. 87: Pastelitos de carne at El Jalapeño 9322 Fulton, 713-697-6262
Pastelitos de carne — a Honduran twist on the empanada — have a thick exterior, usually made with coarsely ground corn. The beef inside the pastelitos at El Jalapeño is roughly chopped fajita meat topped with cabbage shreds and a spicy, creamy sauce that has an habanero kick.
No. 86: Pancakes at Union Kitchen 12538 Memorial, 713-360-2000
Union Kitchen's pancakes come in one size — immense — and one flavor – wonderful. With each order, you'll get seven of these fluffy, golden, nutty, buttery rounds of deliciousness, and you'll love every one.
No. 85: Wild-boar and crab pizza at Boheme 307 Fairview, 713-529-1099
Boheme's menu now includes a smashing array of pizza served on lavash, a type of Armenian flatbread. Spicy wild-boar sausage mingles with flaky fresh crab meat and Brazilian queijo prato as well as a Middle Eastern spice blend called za'atar. And to top it all off: a citrusy barbecue sauce that adds a tart punch.
No. 84: Breakfast croissant at BB Donuts 515 Westheimer, 713-520-7557
The croissants at this Cambodian donut shop are assembled to order, so there's a bit of a wait, but it's worth it. BB Donuts has some of the flakiest, fluffiest, most buttery croissants in Houston. Add to that crispy bacon; a thick, gooey slice of Cheddar; and a fried egg that melts into the croissant as you bite into it .
No. 83: Pretzel at Anvil Bar & Refuge 1424 Westheimer, 713-523-1622
The German-style pretzel is served with a boozy queso dip on the side. The pretzel's allure is in its stretchy, doughy simplicity, in the small scatter of crunchy salt across the top and in its ability to match nearly any beer, wine or cocktail it's paired with.
No. 82: Short-rib sandwich at Shepherd Park Draught House 3402 N. Shepherd, 832-767-1382
The short-rib sandwich takes two pieces of buttery Texas toast and fills the space in between with savory shreds of short ribs in a tangy, balsamic-tinged sauce. The balsamic vinegar helps cut the fattiness of the meat, as does the crunchy coleslaw on top.
No. 81: Grilled shrimp po-boy at Pappadeaux 2525 South Loop W., 713-665-3155
It's difficult to find really good po-boys in Houston, but the crispy, French bread; tart, thinly sliced pickles, and tangy house dressing on the shrimp sandwiches here get you at least halfway to Louisiana.
No. 80: Dahi puri at Shiv Sagar
6662 Southwest Fwy., 713-977-0150
It's not just about the brightly bouncing flavors inside the puffy puri shells — sour-sweet tamarind chutney, tangy yogurt, spicy mint chutney, stiff red onions, herbal cilantro — but about the contrasting textures and temperatures. The chickpeas inside are soft and tender under the boisterous crunch of the puri shells and shreds of sev, the yogurt cold and bracing against the warmer chutneys.
No. 79: Aporreado at Los Corrales
7515 Navigation, 713-923-8549
In Michoacán, aporreado is a common breakfast dish in which machaca — dried shredded beef, which is the specialty at Los Corrales — is mixed with scrambled eggs and served under a warm blanket of spicy tomato-chile sauce. A plate of it comes with rice, beans and house-made tortillas thick with lard.
No. 78: Oxtail francobolli at Aldo's Cucina Italiana 18450 I-45 S., Shenandoah, 936-447-9623
The oxtail-stuffed francobolli have been part of chef Aldo el Sharif's repertoire for years — whether at Aldo's Cucina Italiana or his former restaurants in Houston proper. The silky pocket of handmade pasta hides a heart of fatty, unctuous beef that's offset by the bright tang of homemade marinara sauce sharpened with garlic.
No. 77: Tonkotsu ramen at Cafe Kubo's 9889 Bellaire, 713-995-4200
The tonkotsu ramen at Cafe Kubo's has a scent that's thick, nutty and satisfying. While the noodles aren't handmade, they are cooked to a perfect al dente in a husky broth that testifies to its piggy origins: Tonkotsu ramen is made by slowly boiling pork fat, pork bones and pork collagen for hours at a time.
No. 76: Spinach Danish at Angela's Oven 204 Aurora, 832-239-0437
The spinach Danish from Angela's Oven is a savory, salty way to start your day, with the vegetal bite of spinach balanced against the salty creaminess of soft cheese underneath.
No. 75: Pupusas at El Petate 7433 Canal, 713-921-2176
The simple queso pupusas at El Petate are filled with salty Salvadoran cheese that only barely melts despite the pupusas' turn across a screaming-hot griddle. The cheese is an ideal offset to the toothsome chew of the soft masa, all of it brought together with a few spoonfuls from the giant glass jar of crispy curtido slaw that's delivered to your table.
No. 74: Pheasant dog at Sammy's Wild Game Grill 3715 Washington, 713-868-1345
A pheasant dog at Sammy's is encased in a Slow Dough pretzel bun and topped with a choice of offerings such as sauerkraut, jalapeños or Sammy's signature house-made ghost pepper sauce on top.
No. 73: X-Tudo burger at Copacabana 2825 S. Kirkwood, 281-496-9922
A Brazilian X-Tudo burger at Copacabana means that you're getting a cheeseburger "Tudo" — with almost everything: bacon, ham, peas, corn, potato sticks, tomatoes, lettuce, mayonnaise and even a fried egg. A surprisingly pleasant crunch is provided by the peas, corn and potato sticks.
No. 72: Espárragos gratinados at Tintos Closed
No. 71: Gua bao at Yummy Kitchen 9326 Bellaire, 713-541-4420
At Yummy Kitchen, the pork-belly-filled gua bao are also referred to as Taiwanese burgers. This finger food comes with a hulking piece of thick pork belly tucked inside a soft bun (or bao), pickled mustard greens and a dusting of crushed peanuts with brown sugar that makes the pork taste almost like pig candy save for a bright bite of cilantro at the end.
No. 70: Geisha dog at Happy Endings
The Geisha dog at this roving food truck comes with spicy mayo and Katsu sauce. Both, however, play second fiddle to the fat, broad ribbons of bonito flakes on top, which melt on the tongue with each bite, reducing into a salty pool of umami flavors that bring out the beefy swagger of the hot dog.
No. 69: Oyster po-boy and gumbo at Goode Co. Seafood 2621 Westpark, 713-523-7154
The half po-boy with a cup of gumbo presents two classics side by side. The gumbo is creamy and light and packed with seafood (no meat — the Creole way). The po-boy comes with a choice of catfish, shrimp or oyster — the catfish and shrimp can be fried or mesquite-grilled — but I prefer the three plump, cornmeal-battered oysters.
No. 68: Ceviche at Sirena Seafood
The cool seafood cocktail at the Sirena Seafood truck is quick and easy to grab for lunch. During a recent visit, the ceviche was made with plump nuggets of fresh Gulf grouper in a tart lime juice with plenty of crisp veggies and herbs: tomatoes, red onions, jalapeños, cucumbers and cilantro.
No. 67: Caldo de mariscos at Taqueria Arandas 920 N. Shepherd, 713-426-0804
The inventory in Taqueria Arandas's massive bowl of seafood soup includes a whole crab, mussels (two kinds), shrimp, octopus, squid, catfish and fake krab-with-a-K, along with huge rounds of carrots and potatoes.
No. 66: Banana pudding at Pizzitola's 1703 Shepherd, 713-227-2283
A successful banana pudding has to have four main components: thick, almost custardlike vanilla pudding; fat slices of bananas; real whipped cream; and crunchy Nilla wafers. Pizzitola's gets them all right, even down to the Nilla wafers that seem to be inserted just prior to serving.
No. 65: Fried catfish and gumbo at Cafe-A-La 1917 Ashland, 713-861-6161
In the basement of the Select Specialty Hospital — Houston Heights at the corner of 19th Street and Ashland lies one of the neighborhood's greatest hidden treasures: the Cafe-A-La cafeteria, where Chef James whips up homemade Cajun and Southern specialties such as fried shrimp, stewed mustard greens, gumbo, ribs and boudin.
No. 64: Soft-shell crab at Banana Leaf 9896 Bellaire, 713-271-2338
The Pattaya-style soft-shell crabs are battered and fried until puffy, then garnished with mango, bell peppers, onions and cilantro in a barely sweet sauce tempered with red pepper.
No. 63: Macaroni and cheese at Vic & Anthony's Steakhouse 1510 Texas, 713-228-1111
The reason I love the macaroni and cheese at Vic & Anthony's Steakhouse so much is simple: It's simple. The béchamel sauce has only three cheeses in it: American, white Cheddar and a pinch of Romano for saltiness. The plump cavatappi pasta is blanched to order and topped with a sprinkle of crumbled croutons for texture, the pasta underneath never baked or tough.
No. 62: Torta burger at El Gran Malo 2307 Ella, 832-767-3405
Both burger and torta in one, this sandwich is topped (if you wish) with fried eggs and crispy pork belly or salty, fatty chorizo balanced between the craggy Angus beef patty and the soft telera bread. Hefty amounts of crema and poblano peppers finish off each massive burger, but can you?
No. 61: Black bean burger at Gratifi Kitchen + Bar 302 Fairview, 832-203-5950
On top of the black bean patty that's made in-house just like Gratifi's veggie patty, I like to throw on pepper jack cheese, jalapeños and green chiles along with the standard accompaniments of lettuce, tomato and onion. The eggy bun is thick and sturdy, holding the entire mess together until the last bite.
No. 60: Parrillada at Pampa Grill 10111 Hammerly, 713-722-0666
You can choose from two different parrilladas at Pampa Grill: one that omits the traditional offal like chinchulines (intestines) and mollejas (sweetbreads) and one that includes both. Whichever parrillada you choose will be heaped high with short ribs, flank steak, skirt steak and more, all cooked to order.
No. 59: Peanut butter and jalapeño jelly burger at Wicked Whisk
At this food truck, peanut butter takes the place of cheese atop the thick, juicy patty with its salty flavor and creamy texture providing only a small background hint of sweet nuttiness. There's a nice porky swagger from the two strips of bacon and more sweetness cut by a pleasant burn from the acid-green jalapeño jelly.
No. 58: Eggplant involtini at Giacomo's Cibo e Vino 3215 Westheimer, 713-522-1934
Mozzarella and ricotta are stuffed inside thin strips of sautéed eggplant, which are rolled up like cannoli and baked in a creamy tomato sauce before being topped with bright shreds of torn basil leaves and salty Parmigiano-Reggiano.
No. 57: Lone Star Dog at James Coney Island 3607 S. Shepherd, 713-524-7400
Topped simply with tangy, sweet barbecue sauce and battered slices of onion rings, the Lone Star Dog is nestled in a buttery bun that holds up until the very last bite. Being a Texan, I like to top mine with yellow mustard and jalapeños, too — but it tastes just as good without any extras.
No. 56: Sushi at Sushi Miyagi 10600 Bellaire, 281-933-9112
Each piece of fish Miyagi slices is done with the kind of expert precision that comes from 30 years of being a sushi chef. Each mound of rice is shaped lovingly by hand before being pressed lightly onto the plate.
No. 55: Palestinian chicken at Al Aseel 8619 Richmond, 713-787-0400
The grilled musakhan (aka Palestinian) chicken at Al Aseel comes with sautéed onions that sweeten up the tart, charred, sumac-spiced meat, all of it dripping its juices onto the soft pita bread underneath that serves as a makeshift plate.
No. 54: Roast beef sandwich at Local Foods 2424 Dunstan, 713-521-7800
Onto the delightfully rare, paper-thin slices of roast beef go a spicy horseradish aioli along with some of Local Foods's crunchy kale salad (in lieu of lettuce), rosy red tomatoes and a layer of bright yellow curried cauliflower that elevates the entire sandwich from "quick lunch" to "experience."
No. 53: Mexico City Plate at Molina's Cantina 7901 Westheimer, 713-782-0861
The Mexico City Plate has remained on the restaurant's menu — virtually unchanged — since 1941. It's only $12.50 and features three separate plates of food: a queso-drenched puff of fried masa; a beef taco with guacamole and a lettuce- and salsa-topped bean tostada on another plate; and a final plate with a cheese enchilada and a chili con carne-topped pork tamale.
No. 52: Tacos de chicharrón at Brothers Taco House 1604 Dowling, 713-223-0091
The chicharrones are soft, fatty nuggets stewed in a mild red sauce enhanced with some of Brothers's flavorful green salsa and rolled up in fluffy housemade flour tortillas.
No. 51: Branzino at Lucio's BYOB 905 Taft, 713-523-9958
Stuffed with oranges and shining with a summery-sweet hibiscus glaze, the roasted fish is fileted tableside with understated but expert precision by a smiling waiter in full uniform.
No. 50: Beef sweetbreads at Feast 219 Westheimer, 713-529-7788
Creamy beef sweetbreads are served in a mad jumble atop a mound of mashed rutabaga with a side of tangy Swiss chard that's softened by the rich, meaty juices from the sweetbreads — typically the thymus or pancreas of an animal — and a few fresh mint leaves on top.
No. 49: Golden Doomba Special at the Rice Box Truck
Fried chicken from a Chinese food truck? Yes — and it's wonderfully, arm-drippingly juicy inside and crispy, crackly, crunchy on the outside, served in a kitschy Chinese takeout container on top of cabbage and rice, which easily makes one box into a meal.
No. 48: Malted waffle at City Cafe
513 College Ave., South Houston, 713-944-3710
Imagine the waffle equivalent of Ovaltine: rich, toasty, barely sweet and tasting of pure nostalgia. I'd forgotten how good a malted waffle could taste until reencountering it at City Cafe.
No. 47: Banh mi bo kho at Cafe TH 2108 Pease, 713-225-4766
Banh mi bo kho is beef stew at its pinnacle, fiercer than any boeuf bourguignon and heartier than any goulash. The broth is resplendent with the scent of anise and black pepper and thick with carrots, onions and rugged chunks of beef, all served with a crusty, freshly baked baguette.
No. 46: Chicken-fried steak at Triple A 2526 Airline, 713-861-3422
Triple A batters its never-frozen chicken-fried steak from scratch, and this shows in the honest construction of the pounded-thin steak, with a crinkly batter that adheres fiercely to every bite and crunches mesmerizingly under a sea of white cream gravy.
No. 45: Larissa plate at Harry's 318 Tuam, 713-528-0198
The Larissa plate, named for owner Johnny Platsas's hometown in Thessaly, features a hash of cubed homestyle potatoes tossed with sautéed onions and tomatoes, then spiked with copious amounts of feta cheese and fresh parsley on top. Order the eggs that come with it over easy for the perfect sauce on top.
No. 44: Spaghetti carbonara at Coppa Ristorante Italiano 5555 Washington, 713-426-4260
Plump strands of spaghetti are served in a shallow bowl tossed with torn bits of salami and chopped parsley, topped with cracked black pepper and a single egg. On top goes a thick Parmesan sauce poured tableside.
No. 43: Wings and grits at the breakfast klub 3711 Travis, 713-528-8561
The breakfast klub's chicken wings are deservedly famous for being some of the most well-seasoned and well-fried wings in town. But the grits often get overlooked, which is a shame — especially considering how difficult it is to find honest, perfectly cooked grits in Houston.
No. 42: Frito pie at C&D Burger Shoppe 10606 Fuqua, 281-481-8606
This is the kind of Frito pie that has sustained generations of Little League spectators and Friday-night football fans. Corn chips piled high in a Styrofoam bowl are topped with raw white onions, meat-filled chili and nacho cheese from a pump.
No. 41: Pollo con mole at El Gallo de Jalisco 3220 White Oak, 713-863-9101
Silky and rich, with only a hint of cocoa, the mole at El Gallo is the complete opposite of the overwhelming moles that spark and dazzle others with intricate blends of a thousand different roasted spices and dried chiles. This is village food, easy and comforting.
No. 40: Fried avocado taco at H-Town StrEATs
The best place in town to enjoy a fried avocado is at H-Town StrEATS, where the food truck applies a crunchy, pleasantly thick batter to huge slices of the fruit. Along with the fried avocado, a tangy cabbage slaw with a light mayonnaise dressing and a zing of Sriracha are tucked inside two corn tortillas.
No. 39: Rigatoni in Bolognese sauce at Paulie's 1834 Westheimer, 713-807-7271
Paulie's's freshly made pasta is tender but chewy, soft but firm, and bordering on addictive. The Bolognese sauce on the rigatoni holds its own, made with both beef and veal in a light, creamy tomato sauce with plenty of fresh herbs scattered on top.
No. 38: Chorizo kolaches at Peña's Donut Heaven 11601 Shadow Creek Pkwy., Pearland, 713-340-3231
Owner Raymond Peña makes his own dough for the kolaches. This sweet, yeasty, finely textured dough, combined with the orange-grease-laden chorizo, fluffy eggs and melted Cheddar cheese, makes his chorizo kolaches into a contender for the title of "Most Houstonian Breakfast."
No. 37: Hwe at Dadami 1927 N. Gessner, 832-657-0007
The centerpiece of any group meal at Dadami is undoubtedly the hwe: Korean-style sushi that's served in a giant boat featuring raw flounder, salmon, sea anemone and sea squirt, which arrives after waves of banchan and other smaller Korean dishes have already hit your table.
No. 36: Half-pound burger at benjy's 2424 Dunstan, 713-522-7602
A menacing half-pound of beef topped with salty shreds of Cheddar is served on a house-baked bun along with super-fresh produce. Like the bun, benjy's makes its own pickles in-house, and they add as much pep to the burger as the swipe of garlic aioli on the top bun does.
No. 35: Fried chicken at Haven 2502 Algerian Way, 713-581-6101
Chef Randy Evans's buttermilk-fried chicken is quickly becoming the stuff of Houston legends. It's crispy and savory without being too greasy and is served with classic sides such as creamed greens or mashed potatoes with andouille cream gravy.
No. 34: Whole fried speckled trout at Liberty Kitchen 1050 Studewood, 713-802-0533
There's nothing like the sight of a whole fried fish, seemingly caught in midswim, arching spectacularly across your plate. And there's nothing like digging around in its little crevices — in the head, under its cheeks or collar — for the sweetest bites of dewy flesh left after you've eaten both fat filets.
No. 33: Moules congolaise at Jeannine's Bistro 106 Westheimer, 713-874-0220
Moules congolaise are mussels steamed in a barely creamy broth of coconut milk, tomatoes and spices. It's a bit spicy, with licks of paprika and chipotle coming through the broth, and the fat, juicy mussels do an excellent job of soaking up the rich flavor.
No. 32: Pancakes at Fountain View Cafe 1842 Fountainvew, 713-785-9060
The pancakes here are impossibly thin, straddling the line between pancake and crepe, with lacy, delicate edges and a rich, buttery taste that's consistently delicious week after week and year after year.
No. 31: Pineapple with chile en polvo at Canino's 2520 Airline, 713-862-4027
Dark gold, richly flavored pineapple sprinkled with chile en polvo works much like salting watermelon brings out its flavor. The subtly spicy combination of chile powder, cumin, oregano and garlic enhances the juicy sweetness of everything from pineapple to corn on the cob.
No. 30: Fried chicken at Barbecue Inn 116 W. Crosstimbers, 713-695-8112
I don't know what's more incredible about the fried chicken at Barbecue Inn which has been on the menu since 1946: how neatly the crispy batter clings to the juicy meat or how shockingly greaseless it is.
No. 29: Dirty Burque at Green Seed Vegan 4320 Almeda, 713-487-8346
Unlike bean- or tofu-based patties, Green Seed's veggie burger is mostly buckwheat, made from scratch — like everything else here. The buckwheat patty is studded with colorful chunks of vegetables and topped with avocado, peppery arugula, raw white onion, a tangy spread of egg-free mayonnaise and a New Mexican-style green chile sauce.
No. 28: Egusi at Finger Licking Bukateria 9811 Bissonnet, 713-270-7070
Egusi is a Nigerian "eating soup," scooped up with pieces of fufu, which is accessible in its basic flavors and comforting in its odd familiarity — even if you've never eaten it before. The soft, fatty seeds of the egusi melon thicken the tomato-based broth and add a sweetly nutty flavor to the greens and onions underneath.
No. 27: Brisket and turkey at Corkscrew BBQ 24930 Budde, Spring, 832-592-1184
The red oak chips used at this roadside barbecue stand impart a gentle flavor to the fatty, smoke-ringed brisket, and Corkscrew's long smoking times mean that the turkey breast — normally a dry cut of meat — is rendered surprisingly juicy and flavorful.
No. 26: Menudo at La Mexicana 1018 Fairview, 713-521-0963
This menudo is reserved for weekend breakfasts, where you can sop up the tripe-studded broth with La Mex's fresh flour tortillas. I top it with the finely diced white onions that cut through the greasy broth, powdered oregano and chile pequin for a meal that's both comforting and eye-opening at once.
No. 25: Shrimp and grits at Shade 250 W. 19th, 713-863-7500
The shrimp at Shade don't come swimming in a bowl of grits but are presented on their own. An ample serving of grits accompanies them, while the golden-fried shrimp rest on top of a bed of Frank's Red Hot sauce that offers a nod to Lowcountry cuisine with its vinegar tang.
No. 24: Kinilaw at Reef 2600 Travis, 713-526-8282
The Filipino kinilaw that Reef serves changes with the week's catch, marinated in snappy ginger, lime juice and cool coconut water and decorated with more tropical touches: bites of orange and daikon as well as lotus root slices that have been fried to a gentle crisp.
No. 23: Lamb barbacoa at El Hidalguense 6917 Long Point, 713-680-1071
This house specialty is listed on the menu as barbacoa de borrego, or lamb barbacoa that's been cooked in maguey leaves, which keep the lamb tender and moist while it cooks. After being unwrapped, the lamb is stewed in El Hidalguense's tart salsa verde, which cuts the fattiness of the meat.
No. 22: Gumbo at Danton's 4611 Montrose, 713-807-8883
The texture of the thick, smokey roux at Danton's is velvety-soft, with hefty body to it that is nothing like the thin, reedy gumbos so often found elsewhere. This is a Cajun gumbo — rice served on the side — which employs shrimp, crab and huge, two-bite oysters in the broth.
No. 21: Chicken-fried water buffalo at The Hay Merchant 1100 Westheimer, 713-528-9805
Water buffalo from North Texas has a sweet, grassy note that is otherwise missing in chicken-fried steaks made with straight-up beef. Chef Antoine Ware's crunchy breading never becomes gummy or flaky, and the cream gravy on top tastes like the cast-iron-skillet gravy I grew up on that's thick with flour, butter and pan drippings.
No. 20: Roasted cauliflower at Roost 1972 Fairview, 713-523-7667
The cauliflower here is roasted and fried, then presented in a bowl of satiny miso broth that coats each buttery chunk with a rich, salty, earthy sheen. Delicate flakes of bonito dance across the top and provide a briny bite, while crunchy pine nuts and bright slivers of green onion provide a final buoyant boost.
No. 19: Truffled egg toast at Dolce Vita 500 Westheimer, 713-520-8222
A giant piece of toasted bread is soaked in truffle oil before being topped with shavings of black truffle, a snowcap of Parmesan cheese and a runny egg yolk. Cut it open and the egg yolk flows forth, providing an equally rich dipping sauce.
No. 18: 63-degree egg at Brasserie 19 1962 W. Gray, 713-524-1919
Pierce the poached egg that rests next to spoonfuls of caviar on top of a savory Parmesan custard, scoop all three components up with your spoon — viscous yolk, creamy custard, salty eggs — and spread it across a piece of warm, soft baguette for a flavor combination that's sudden and sharp, elegant and refined.
No. 17: Drunken foie gras at Philippe 1800 Post Oak Blvd., 713-439-1000
The fattiness of duck liver is cut and mellowed even further by the full-bodied Sauternes and Armagnac that chef Philippe Schmit employs. It's a lovely little luxury that requires absolutely no other accompaniment than a piece of soft, crusty brioche upon which to spread the foie gras.
No. 16: Beet salad at Triniti 2815 S. Shepherd, 713-527-9090
Triniti's beet salad is both the perfect appetizer and the perfect bar snack. The relaxed plating finds a tumble of multicolored beets jostling with green, white and purple cauliflower over a thick spread of curried goat cheese that could turn on even the most hardcore carnivore.
No. 15: Yogi thali at Pondicheri 2800 Kirby, 713-522-2022
The thali is the Indian version of a sampler plate, with small servings of many dishes in metal bowls grouped on a large platter. The yogi thali at Pondicheri contains a brightly hued jumble of vegetarian dishes including sautéed greens, a hearty barley salad and the day's vegetable curry.
No. 14: Bialy and lox at The Hot Bagel Shop 2009 S. Shepherd, 713-520-0340
The Polish version of the bagel — missing a hole — is a less frantic version of an everything bagel. A bialy offers you more spreading surface and sweet, chewy dough, which — when paired with the tangy onions, the tart cream cheese and the hunks of buttery salmon scattered throughout the lox spread — represents my ideal breakfast bagel.
No. 13: Ribs at Gatlin's 1221 W. 19th, 713-869-4227
The ribs have a luscious char on the outside that comes from the low-and-slow smoking technique employed by Greg Gatlin, who uses hickory to impart a sweet aroma and taste. The meat is never soggy or soft, though, just moist and tender, with a pleasant crunch as you shatter through that exterior char into the sweet rib meat below.
No. 12: Venison carpaccio at Thanh Phuong 3236 E. Broadway, Pearland, 281-412-7868
Thanh Phuong's venison carpaccio makes excellent use of soft, ruddy deer meat: Thin, opaque ribbons of venison are marinated in citrus juices and pungent fish sauce served with strings of red onion and shallot woven throughout and liberally doused with crushed peanuts for a sweet, nutty crunch.
No. 11: Camarones henesy en hamaca at Arturo Boada Cuisine 6510 Del Monte, 713-782-3011
A dish that loosely translates to "cognac shrimp in a hammock," this features a rich, velvety sauce that's an arresting blend of butter, white wine, soy and ginger. They're flavors that wouldn't seem to work with the additional components — hearts of palm, capers, tomatoes, sweet plantains and shrimp — but in chef Arturo Boada's hands, they do.
No. 10: Prosciutto and arugula pizza at Pizaro's 14028 Memorial, 281-589-7277
The combination of arugula and prosciutto acts as pepper and salt, balancing out the gooey mozzarella underneath and providing a wonderful spark of flavor to each bite of the simple, Napoletano-style crust laced with blisters from the massive oven that's the centerpiece of the restaurant.
No. 9: Crawfish at The Hideaway on Dunvale 3122 Dunvale, 713-977-3515
The Hideaway serves some of the best and largest crawfish you'll find. They're also some of the least expensive and come with corn and potatoes for no extra charge (important stuff here).
No. 8: Pho tai at Pho Binh 10928 Beamer, 281-484-3963
The family at the Pho Binh trailer makes the anise-scented broth from scratch, boiling down beef bones and seasoning it with rich cinnamon and caramelized onions. The pho is a blend of that tawny broth, slippery noodles, crunchy bean sprouts and thinly sliced ribbons of rare beef — with a silky sheen of beef fat floating on top.
No. 7: Ceviche at La Fisheria 4705 Inker, 713-802-1712
There's a range of different ceviches at La Fisheria, most made with Gulf red snapper, from a simple lime dressing on the El Cayuco to a ceviche verde marinated in Seville orange juice and served with mild, pleasant amaranth leaves in place of the more strongly flavored cilantro.
No. 6: Ma po tofu at Mala Sichuan 9348 Bellaire, 713-995-1889
Both ma (numbing) and la (spicy) are found in great quantities in the dark-red, steaming bowl of thick, jiggly tofu cubes and sweet pork that is brought to the table. After only a couple of bites, you'll notice that signature white-hot, palate-cleansing heat from the mala sauce.
No. 5: Machi cure at Uchi 904 Westheimer, 713-522-4808
In chef Tyson Cole's signature recipe, baby yellowtail is smoked with applewood chips and combined with fried yucca chips, Marcona almonds, sultanas and Asian pears in a white soy dressing infused with orange oil. It's a playful combination of smoke, salt and sweet with an irresistible crunch supplied by those yucca chips.
No. 4: Tuna and bottarga at Tony's 3755 Richmond, 713-622-6778
A take on the classic spaghetti with bottarga (cured fish roe, called "the poor man's caviar"), this beautifully straightforward dish takes freshly made tagliatelle and pairs it with rosy niblets of barely cooked bluefin tuna, velvety butter, delicately briny tuna bottarga and a light zesting of lemon.
No. 3: Roast summer squash at Oxheart 1302 Nance, 832-830-8592
Roasted summer squash with vadouvan — a French-Indian spice blend that's bracing and strong with notes of sweet fenugreek, turmeric, cloves and nutmeg against smoky cumin and musky curry leaves — and a squash blossom soubise shows how cleverly chef Justin Yu can transform even the most basic vegetable dish.
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No. 2: Amberjack sashimi and foie gras at Kata Robata 3600 Kirby, 713-526-8858
Glimmering slices of amberjack have a thick, meaty flavor to them that belies their delicate appearance and therefore isn't overwhelmed by the livery fat from the foie gras. A scatter of crushed hazelnuts adds a welcome crunch to each bite, and olive oil adds a final slick sweetness.
No. 1: Korean braised goat and dumplings at Underbelly 1100 Westheimer, 713-528-9800
Even if you don't care about the backgrounds and influences that went into creating the braised goat and dumplings, you'll care about the tingle that sparks across your lips and tongue as you take your first few bites of the shredded goat in deep red gojuchang sauce. Then you'll start noticing the rich, dusky flavor of the goat and the sweet, nutty pops of sesame seeds scattered across the top of the dish. And when you get to the "dumplings," prepare for something that's more like thick, tube-shaped gnocchi — chewy inside but slightly crisp at its edges.