Houston is a damn fine food town. Pity the Houston expat who leaves and never tastes queso again. Pity me, who left five years ago for the better weather of Los Angeles and found myself missing the grub immediately. Thankfully, I come back a couple times a year to visit my folks, and every time I drive around town and eat all the Houston foods I miss. It's a pilgrimage that puts on five pounds in a week, a Hajj of hand-formed hamburgers and homemade gravy.
What's surprising is that over the five years I've been gone, certain foods have dropped off the list entirely. Whataburger, once a given of every visit home, now seems like a salty, soggy mess. Star Pizza does not stand the test of time. Even some Tex-Mex staples, like super thin tortilla chips dipped in warm salsa, lose their deep red allure over the years (sacrilege, I know).
But other Houston foods--five in particular--have held fast. These are the Houston foods for the ages, the ones you miss long after you leave.
5. Hand-Formed Hamburgers That Aren't Fancy Hamburgers usually fall into two camps: machine-made patties that just aren't that good and crazy-fancy burgers with 15 options of toppings. We can dismiss the first group outright (sorry, In-N-Out), and the second group (hello, The Counter) has the quality but also tries way too hard and costs way too much.
But there's a third group: The hand-formed Houston burgers you'll find at Rudyard's, Christian's Totem/Tailgate or myriad other places around town. Subtle simplicity goes a long way, and these burgers (and tots! and onion rings!) don't drain your wallet either. Eat your heart out, Goldilocks. And have a Saint Arnold beer while you're at it.
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4. Strip-Mall Cheese Enchiladas Runny cheese enchiladas are surprisingly hard to find once you leave Houston. Even the offerings in Austin and Dallas seem more coagulated. And don't get me started on Los Angeles's complete failure in this department, which they try to compensate for by giving you a radish on your plate. As if a radish would tip the scales for anyone.
The Tex-Mex restaurants sprinkled in strip-malls across Houston - like so many chopped onions atop chile con carne - know just the right amount of goop to fire the pleasure centers in your brain. In Northwest Houston I always wind up at Don Jose, Two Amigos or Los Caporales. Combo plate number four, please.
3. Chicken-Fried Steak Texas truly is the border between the South and the West, because once you manifest your destiny any further, all good CFS options dry up in the dust. Which is a real shame, especially for a dish that's not very difficult to make.
Beat the meat. Drizzle with milk. Spice, flour and fry. Done.
What's so difficult about that, everywhere else but the South? You could argue the best CFS is outside the city, in small towns along the Chicken-Fried Steak Belt, but Houston still holds its own. I'm glancing your way, Hickory Hollow and Kelley's Country Cooking.
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2. BBQ 'Cue is not unique to Houston. But damn, y'all do it well. And you don't have to pay out of your rump for it either.
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Houston is loaded with great barbecue joints -- Pizzitola's, Virgie's, Gatlin's -- but the magic is that the unspectacular spots are still better than almost anywhere else in the country. Even the sterile cafeteria underneath the Exxon building downtown has a three-meat platter that'll sate your desire for sauce. And don't get me started on the shade tree options.
1. Shipley Do-Nuts Shipley's is very easy to take for granted when you live here. But as someone who has loved and lost, let me exhort you to take a Shipley's doughnut in your arms and tell it how much you love it every single day. You never know which bite will be your last of glazed perfection, so savor each and every moment.
There are other doughnuts in this world. There are some fine cake and buttermilk offerings in Los Angeles. But Shipley's does glazed like nowhere else, and even the different Shipley's across town have subtle variations for the refined palate. The Shipley's on North Main is so proud of their glazing they even put it on the chocolate iced doughnuts too.
A glazed doughnut is best served warm and sticky, but in a pinch you can even pop a Shipley's in the microwave and get a slightly more rubbery version of perfection. But you never have to do that so long as you live here. Treasure that privilege, Houston. Don't take another day for granted.