There are times when a food writer should rely on a personal base of experience to declare a restaurant or a dish “best in class"—or, sometimes, explain why it isn’t.
Other times, a food writer might be confronted with such a wealth of knowledge from the readership that it would be utter foolishness to do nothing more than the best job possible to act as a conduit and organize that information. This is one of those times.
I’ve been working on a list of restaurants that I consider tragically underrated. When I shared that I was working on social media, a flood of suggestions ensued. It seemed like everyone had a few restaurants they felt weren’t as well known as they deserved.
The reasons vary. Perhaps an otherwise excellent restaurant has been hampered by the road construction outside its front door, causing diners to avoid the place so they don’t have to deal with the traffic hassles.
Maybe it’s an older restaurant that has been taken for granted or a newer place that somehow got lost amid Houston’s continual stream of restaurant openings. The restaurant owner might rely too heavily on word of mouth to bring in new business instead of trying to advertise or contact the local food media.
Whatever the reason, it seems like some restaurants just don’t get talked about as much. Yet, they’re still putting out excellent food and have other qualities to admire.
To that end, I have combined readers' suggestions with my own and arranged the result by area of town as a handy reference guide. The result is an exciting list that promises many food adventures to come.
Captain Benny’s: The boat-shaped restaurants seem a little outdated and goofy, but Captain Benny’s has been serving reliable Gulf Coast seafood since 1967. In addition to the excellent roasted oysters and micheladas (which are what Amber Ambrose goes for every visit), there’s fried and broiled shrimp, catfish, stuffed flounder and more. As an added bonus, there are plenty of Cajun delights, too, like fried alligator, étouffée and gumbo. Reader Pick by host Amber Ambrose of the Feelin’ Good web series.
Luby’s: For many Houstonians, there’s just something about Luby’s and its long cafeteria counter of everything from salads to desserts. What keeps bringing people back? Readers cited fried fish with lemon, macaroni & cheese and roasted chicken. Reader Pick by Cheryl Gibbs, beverage consultant with Republic National and Donnie Carroll of Helen Greek Food & Wine.
All Bengal Sweets and Snacks, 13438 Bellaire Boulevard #7: All Bengal is one of the few Bangladeshi restaurants in the city and where natives go when they need a taste of home. The menu includes hilsa, an oily fish that is a common catch near Bangladesh. Here, it’s served with mustard. Also available is goat, the little crispy snacks called chaat, puffy, unleavened bread (puri) served with a variety of curries and seldom-seen sweets like jalebi (crispy strands of dough fried in pretzel-like shapes) and balushahi, which look similar to doughnuts but have a firmer texture. Reader Pick by attorney Annie Banerjee.
Saigon Café, 2902 San Jacinto: Thien An gets a lot of attention for its casual Vietnamese fare, but there’s apparently some real competition across the street. Food blogger Jay Francis says that the pho here is well worth more attention. “I have had the pho twice there. It is a very dark broth and the meat is fork-tender.” Certainly, no one will complain about another good Vietnamese spot near downtown. Reader Pick by Jay Francis.
Cali Sandwich & Fast Food, 3030 Travis: Those in the know regard this as the best stop for Vietnamese food in downtown Houston. Alex Gregg says his favorite dish is the spicy garlic chicken and also vouches for the pork or tofu bánh mì (Vietnamese sandwiches). Reader Pick by Alex Gregg of Moving Sidewalk and Sean Carroll of Melange Creperie.
Spindletop, 1200 Louisiana: This landmark spins slowly atop the Hyatt Regency, giving diners an unparalleled 360-degree view of downtown Houston and beyond. The downside is that dishes tend to be expensive. (Think “hotel pricing.” They’ve got to pay for that rotating mechanical beast somehow.) The menu has had a shift recently to local and Gulf coast ingredients. It’s ideal for fancy dates and well worth a checking out if it’s been a while since you’ve been. If you want to hedge your bets, sit at one of the bartop tables, have a cocktail, check out the menu and then decide if you want to commit to dinner. Spindletop is open Tuesdays through Saturdays for dinner only. Pro tip: valet park, let the attendant know you’re only there to dine at Spindletop and get your ticket validated before you leave the restaurant so you don’t get nailed with the same parking fee as the hotel guests. Critic's Pick.
Andes Café, 2311 Canal, #104: Andes Café’s unlikely spot on the ground floor of a humble office building in EaDo is undoubtably part of what causes them to get overlooked, but inside is a fine café. In the mornings, Andes Café serves smoothies and fresh juices that include native South American fruits. There are hearty breakfasts, too, like llapingachos, an Ecuadorian breakfast of potato and cheese patties with in-house made pork sausage, two sunny side up eggs lettuce, avocado and a tangy vinaigrett called agrio. They’re open for lunch and dinner, too, and while some ingredients may be unknown to diners, the majority, like salmon, beef, quinoa and corn, are universal. Critic's Pick.
Bohemeo’s, 708 Telephone: artist Valerie Gudell said, “I've participated in several shows at East End Studio Gallery (a few doors down) and have eaten there a bunch of times. I had the fish tacos recently—great flavors and very light. I've also had their pizza and quite a few turkey paninis. All were yummy.” Reader Pick by artist Valerie Gudell.
The Kolache Shoppe, 3945 Richmond: This is one of the most well-regarded places in Houston for kolaches. These breakfast time delights are so good thanks to the old Czechoslovakian recipes that are still in use to this day. Reader Pick by Stacey Roussel of All We Need Farm.
Luling City Market, 4726 Richmond: The food at this longtime Houston barbecue joint is “good and hype-free,” according to Nancy Hahn Elliot. She says the recipe for Luling City Market’s barbecue sauce is the single most popular post on her blog. There must be a good reason for that. Reader Pick by Nancy Hahn Elliot of the Tag Sale Tastes food blog.
Pete’s Fine Meats, 5509 Richmond. Chef de partie Daniel McGarvey wrote, “I usually get the sliced brisket sandwich. But all of their food is top notch and has been since long before I was born.” Reader Pick by Chef de partie Daniel McGarvey of La Table.
Hughie’s Tavern & Vietnamese Grill, 1802 W 18th: There is so much to love about this Vietnamese-Texas fusion joint that it’s hard to decide what to recommend the most. Is it the burger, topped with kimchi and a fried egg or the top-notch craft beer program? Shall we laud the excellent bánh mì or the juicy shaking beef? Maybe we should talk about the chicken fried steak, which is breaded filet mignon instead of the typical eye of round that has to be pummeled into submission? Why are you still here? Go already. Critic’s Pick and also recommended by senior editor John Nova Lomax of Texas Monthly.
Skinny Rita’s, 4002 North Main: First of all, the name is terrible and far too close to “Maggie Rita’s,” that disaster of a Tex-Mex that went under a few years ago. That said, readers say the food here is actually really good, including the quinoa chile relleno and the chicken mole. The margaritas, made with agave instead of simple syrup, are reportedly pretty potent, too. There’s now a second location at 607 West Gray in Midtown. Recommended by Houston Press freelance food writer Ellie Sharp, Marissa Jenkins of Let’s Have An Affair catering and Amber Ambrose of the Feelin’ Good web series.
Tony’s Mexican Restaurant, 2222 Ella: Stepping into Tony’s Mexican Restaurant on Ella is like stepping through a time portal to 1979. It’s doubtful anyone has redecorated since 1979. None of the diners care. They’re too busy savoring bowls of queso, searing plates of cheese enchiladas, fish tacos and “lethal” margaritas. The chips and salsa are both served piping hot and the salsa is actually a little spicy, which is a plus. There’s a location in Katy as well, but no one has vouched for it yet. Recommended by regular Houston Press contributor Jeff Balke and Liz Gorman Jones of A Dog Day Afternoon. Critic's pick, too.
Triple A Restaurant, 2526 Airline: This bare-bones, old fashioned diner is closed at 3 p.m. on Saturdays and all-day Sundays and Mondays, so take heed or be disappointed. The rest of the week, they’re serving simple bacon-and-egg-style and pancakes for breakfast. In the afternoon, the lunch menu features legendary, rib-sticking fare like chicken and dumplings, chicken pot pie and chicken-fried steaks. Reader Pick by Donnie Carroll, bartender, Helen Greek Food & Wine.
Chez Nous, 217 S Avenue G: This charming French restaurant is nestled in a former church in an unassuming Humble neighborhood. Both chef Stacy-Crowe Simonson and husband Scott also honed their culinary skills in France and it shows from the beautiful, generous entrées—presented under domes the old-school way—to the wonderful French wine list. Don’t fail to request a soufflé for dessert. Critic's Pick and also recommended by avid diner Maureen Hall.
Nidda Thai, 1226 Westheimer
For years and years, humble Nidda Thai has sat in its lowly strip center spot next to a lingerie store, feeding lunches and dinners to dozens of patrons a day but hardly ever mentioned. The Thai food here is quite respectable, including both coconut milk curries and drier-style curries like the pad prik khing. There’s also a wide range of vegetarian dishes, like the avocado curry. Palefaces may need to really insist when they want their food to actually be spicy and suffer through a dubious look or two, but the results are worth it. Critic's Pick, also recommended by Houston Chronicle regional editor Martin Hajovsky.
Hungry Farmer Barbecue, 40 East Crosstimbers: This humble restaurant has been family-owned and operated since 1975. The huge, barbecue-stuffed baked potato is a quintessential Houston dish that keeps customers coming back over and over again. Reader Pick by Houston Press freelance photographer Marco Torres.
Oak Forest/Garden Oaks
Don Jose Mexican Restaurant, 5305 Antoine: This old-style Tex-Mex place is family-owned and -operated. Carroll says his favorite thing is the cheese enchiladas, adding, “Their menu is tasty because of its simplicity.” Reader Pick by Donnie Carroll, bartender, Helen Greek Food & Wine.
Doyle’s Restaurant, 2136 W 34th: People seem to either really love Doyle’s or really hate it. “Doyle’s is where Italian food went and died,” said one industry pro while another said that while it was “historically significant,” the food wasn’t very good. Doyle’s proponents, though, were enthusiastic about the New York mom and pop charm, the meatballs and the lasagna. Reader Pick by Donnie Carroll, bartender at Helen Greek Food & Wine and avid diner Maureen Hall.
Addis Ababa Ethiopian Restaurant & Lounge, 7668 De Moss: Many love the communal nature of Ethiopian meals, but the dining repertoire doesn’t seem to extend past Blue Nile and Lucy’s. Addis Ababa is staffed with warm, welcoming, generous folks who want to get to know their diners. They are forthcoming and helpful to people unfamiliar with the cuisine. There’s a quite varied selection of vegetarian, beef, lamb, fish and poultry dishes to choose from. Visit with friends, for a vast feast of wots (curried stews), tibs (cubed meat sautéed in sauces and spices) and minchetabish (minced seasoned beef) awaits. Critic's Pick.
Original Antoine’s Import Co., 8057 Kirby: Destiny Torres claims they have the best Cuban sandwiches in Houston. Reader Pick by Destiny Torres.
Uyghur Bistro, 9888 Bellaire: This restaurant just opened at the beginning of the year, so “under-discovered” might be a better description than “underrated.” That’s going to rapidly change as word gets around on Houston’s most accurate representation of Uyghur cuisine. The food hails from the melting pot of cultures in the Xinjiang region of far Western China. The Uyghurs are Turkic-speaking Muslims and the spectacular food results from the integration of hand-cut noodles, lamb, mutton, chicken and Szechuan peppercorns. There is no BYOB and alcohol is not served, but it’s easy to be content with the fine Turkish tea. The portions are huge so bring three or four people to share with for the ultimate experience. The same diners who barnstormed the original Mala Sichuan will likely be just as enchanted with Uyghur Bistro (and let’s hope this also gets its own inside-the-Loop location). Reader Pick by Annie Banerjee, attorney.
Ambrosia, 2003 Lexington: Ambrosia’s food is described as, “tapas with an Asian twist” and bounces exuberantly from Korean-style wings to masala-seasoned filet kabobs. Other worthwhile dishes are the flatbreads, Five Spice Strip, lamb chops, Gangnam Ribs and lamb samosas. The seductive atmosphere and wine list that includes selections from France, Spain and Italy is also part of the charm. Reader pick by Hal Brock, bartender, Bad News Bar.
Arturo Boada Cuisine, 6510 Del Monte: The most remarkable thing about chef Arturo Boada is the way he and his staff effortlessly transition from one cuisine to another. With the grace of a crosscountry skier, they navigate from Spanish paella to Mexican street tacos to hand-tossed Neapolitan pizzas like there’s nothing to it. Somehow, it all flows. Everything is fabulous and nothing seems out of place or disjointed. Boada’s decades of experience simply means that he can do it all. The restaurant is just off of Voss, but faces the side street of Del Monte so it would be easy to pass by—but missing out on the beautiful spot, all done up in fiery reds and golds, would be a real shame. Critic’s Pick and Reader Pick by restaurant designer and cookbook author Erin Hicks.
Bistro Provence, 13616 Memorial: With a menu ranging from the classics, like duck magret, to the creative, such as goat-cheese filled ravioli with scallop and shrimp, every guest should be able to find a dish to match his or her mood at Genevieve Guy's cozy French outpost. In the summer, the vichyssoise is a must-try. The occasional wine dinners here are always special, too, often featuring wines from high-quality, small vineyards and sourced via French Country Wines in Rice Village. Critic's Pick.
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Empire Turkish Grill, 12448 Memorial: Among other expert Mediterranean fare, Empire offers perfectly grilled kabobs and excellent hummus. Reader Pick by Dr. Cathi Walsh.
Café Rabelais, 2442 Times: For 11 years, Café Rabelais has quietly kept a torch burning for Francophiles even as fads come and go around their Rice Village strip center location. The French wine list is one of the best of its kind and the by-the-bottle prices are fair. The dishes on the big menu chalkboard change according to the season and the selections often include reliable classics like chicken paillard, rack of lamb, and whole-roasted fish. The one thing Café Rabelais really needs to do this year, though, is to reinvigorate the concept, instill some excitement and attract new diners. Critic's Pick and Reader Pick by Ronnie Flagiello, Realtor.
Cleburne Cafeteria, 3606 Bissonnet: The Mickelis family, which bought the business in 1952, prides itself on running Cleburne Cafeteria pretty much the same as when it opened under the original owners in 1941. Its proponents say the food here is better than Luby’s—which could possibly start a battle royale with the Luby's people. Reader Pick by Terry Williams, bar manager of Anvil Bar & Refuge and Joe Espelage, advertising consultant at the Houston Press.