Houston is great, but sometimes being surrounded by concrete day after day gets tiresome. One antidote is to drive out of the flatlands and see some of the beautiful scenery just outside the city. Lakes, huge nature preserves, beaches and hills are just a short drive from town.
Of course, when on an adventure, people need to fuel more than just their automobiles, ideally with terrific meals, not just middling sustenance.
Many destination-worthy restaurants are defined greatly by the food culture of the region. The delineation is remarkable. Head south for fresh Gulf seafood and oysters. Neighboring Louisiana, the native home of Cajun and Creole food, influences the east. To the north is where strong Southern traditions are found, including rib-sticking chicken-fried steaks. Head to the northwest and land right in beef country — prime Central Texas barbecue territory.
These seven eateries represent all these cultural nuances and take no longer than 90 minutes to get to from the center of downtown Houston in light traffic. The jaunt, of course, will be longer or shorter depending on the starting point. Each has something special to offer hungry road warriors.
Southeast of Houston: Home of Gulf Seafood and Oysters
Benno’s On The Beach, 1200 Seawall, Galveston. The locals head to esteemed Rudy & Paco for South and Central American fare, but there’s fine Latin fare in Houston too. Houstonians who make a road trip to Galveston are often seeking the “island experience” and that means fresh Gulf seafood.
Historic Gaido’s is well-known for that, but not everyone wants white tablecloths. Casual and value-oriented diners will find Benno’s On The Beach to their liking. It is counter-service and very casual, so visitors don’t need to feel guilty about their shorts and flip-flop sandals.
Most important, the food is good and reasonably priced considering the touristy surroundings. Costs can fluctuate on certain types of seafood, depending on market prices, but a generous fried shrimp and oyster dinner complete with french fries, coleslaw and hush puppies was recently listed at $16.25 (and could feed two people easily).
The un-fanciness of the joint means there’s not a remarkable beer or wine selection, but what is available is cheap. There are a couple of white wines and one red. All are served in big glass mugs for $5. No matter what, don’t leave without trying the bread pudding with bourbon sauce.
East of Houston: Louisiana Food Without Ever Leaving Texas
Sartin’s Seafood, 3520 Nederland, Nederland. Houstonians will have no regrets making the jaunt here for Louisiana-style barbecued blue crab. Even the appetizer portion of six seems like a mountainous heap. Hot oil frying makes the shells slightly brittle and easier to crack — the better to ferret out every morsel of sweet white crab meat. Best of all, the tedious work of cleaning and cooking the crabs is done, so there’s nothing left to do but crack the shells and enjoy.
The barbecued crabs at Sartin’s are adorned in reddish chunks of seasoning. It gets all over everyone’s hands, but that’s just part of the fun. There’s a huge TexJoy brand sign mounted in the back, so that might be a clue to what’s in the blend. Former Houston Press restaurant critic Robb Walsh did some research and found that the original seasoning that Sartin’s used, Alamo Zestful Seasoning, had been discontinued back in 1983. Fiesta Bar-B-Que Crab Seasoning was a subsequent copycat. The blend that Walsh developed himself included Spanish smoked paprika, Old Bay and sugar.
Crab isn’t very filling, so after a plate at Sartin’s, there will likely still be room to demolish an order of respectable battered and fried boudin balls.
Northwest of Houston: Central Texas Barbecue
Truth BBQ, 2990 U.S. 290, Brenham. This is one of the brightest new stars in Texas barbecue and just a short jaunt outside of Houston. It’s helmed by Leonard Botello IV and his family. It’s going to be challenging not to get stuffed on thick slabs of tender brisket, silky pulled pork, cornbread-like pudding studded through with whole, fresh kernels of corn, and notable greens that haven’t had the life cooked out of them.
It is, though, imperative to save room, because there’s cake. Botello’s mom makes a fantastic three-layer chocolate cake with melt-in-your-mouth buttercream frosting. (It will melt right off the cake in a hot trunk too, so bring a cooler.) The Lone Star in the ice chest is free with purchase.
Southwest of Houston: Old-Time Southern Comfort
The Jay Café, 16634 Texas 36, Needville. The diner scene is fading in Houston but it’s alive and well in Needville, Texas, home of the fighting Bluejays. (Needville High School is right across Highway 36.)
At The Jay Café, breakfast is breakfast and lunch is lunch. That means there are no all-day morning noshes, but even those who miss the a.m. meal will find plenty of consolation in the exceptional chicken-fried steak and pie. In fact, the coconut cream pie, with its fluffy meringue top, is absolutely one of the best to be found anywhere. And the chicken-fried steak is everything it should be with a crisp, seasoned crust and thick Southern-style white gravy embellishing fork-tender beef.
North of Houston: Unexpected Finds on Country Roads
Florida’s Kitchen, 796 FM 350, and Hitch-N-Post Café, 1880 FM 350, Livingston. A woodsy, farm-to-market road east of where the Trinity River pools to form Lake Livingston seems an unlikely place to find notable restaurants, but that’s exactly where these are located, just a mile apart from each other. We suggest visiting both in one trip — and be very, very hungry.
Hitch-N-Post Café is a ramshackle setup that has junk — we mean memorabilia — -displayed everywhere. In June 2013 it was named one of Texas Monthly’s top 50 barbecue joints in the world.
The pork ribs at Hitch-N-Post were our favorite of the barbecued meats, although the burgers would be well worth a try. A slice of homemade pecan pie sported a caramel base as deep and rich as anyone might want.
A mile away is Florida’s Kitchen, and be warned: The portion sizes are enormous. Adjust the order accordingly. The chicken-fried steak arrives on a big, oblong platter, and at least one server calls it “the gut-buster.” As far as the desserts go, the slice of excellent, dense, diner-style carrot cake with cream cheese frosting was so huge it must have been an eighth of the entire cake.
Special-Occasion Dining in Humble? Yes Indeed!
Chez Nous, 217 South Avenue G, Humble. If all these other trips seem too far, consider this the “starter trip” since Chez Nous is only a 30-minute drive from downtown Houston if there are no traffic or construction holdups. (Yeah, we know that never happens.)
Anyway, the quaint town of Humble might sound like an unlikely locale for special-occasion dining worthy of an anniversary, but Chez Nous is one of the best and most traditional French restaurants around. In fact, maintaining an elegant, non-disruptive meal is so important to the staff that our photographer got a polite but stern warning from the maître d’ not to disturb our fellow diners.
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It’s important to order a soufflé when placing the rest of the dinner so the kitchen has time to prepare it. There are always Grand Marnier and chocolate ones, as well as a seasonal edition. For example, mango soufflé with toasted coconut and crème anglaise was the warm-weather selection.
French-style charcuterie is served on antique glass platters, and of all the meaty wonders — which are many, including cured duck breast, pork rillette and rustic pâté de campagne studded with pistachios and adorned in a smattering of glittery salt crystals — the greatest is the rich and silky Normandy duck mousse with a layer of gleaming port wine aspic.
The wine list is dominated by those from France and California and the staff is happy to suggest pairings for each course, including entrées of succulent grilled breast of Muscovy duckling, a whole confit duck leg and black pepper-dusted Teres Major steak with cognac cream sauce.
Experiencing Texas restaurants just a short drive outside the city can be inspiring and memorable. There’s no sense in putting it off too long. Gas up, start the car and hit the open road.