I wrote the majority of the 100 Favorite Dishes list in just a few hours. I put it aside for a few days to mull it over. I came back, added a few dishes, moved others to a list of alternates and then started visiting restaurants for my old favorites.
There were the inevitable bumps in the road. The fried chicken livers at The Chicken Ranch were originally on the list, but the restaurant closed. The fish sauce wings at The Hay Merchant were taken off the menu and replaced with gochujang wings, which I didn’t like as much. Sometimes, I’d visit a restaurant and a dish was no longer as good as I remembered or thought it would be.
Fortunately, for every dish that fell off the list, a new one rose up to take its place. New restaurant reviews turned up some instant classics that deserved a place in our culinary lexicon, such as the barbecued beef belly at Southern Goods (No. 32), the bacon mochi at Izakaya (No. 36) and the make-your-own-gyros at Helen Greek Food & Wine (No. 39). These were happy additions, not only because they are dishes Houstonians can be proud of, but because they also made the 100 Favorite Dishes list a timely, up-to-date resource.
Many enduring Houston favorites made their way onto my list as if by osmosis. As exciting, unique, diverse and cosmopolitan as Houston’s food scene is, there are quintessential dishes that have yet to be usurped by newcomers. The telur balado at The Rice Bowl II (No. 51), thin, crispy pizzas at Dolce Vita (No. 40) and Korean fried chicken at The Toreore (No. 54) are still some of the best representations of our multicultural city.
This list of the 10 Best Dishes in Houston also reflects our diversity. It ranges from $2 tacos to $50 dishes that are ideal for a special night out. Included is a James Beard award-winning chef’s own nod to multicultural Houston. Others hail from humble “holes in the wall.” At the very top is a dish that represents what many culinary aficionados seek — an elusive, transcendent experience attainable when the highest-quality ingredients are treated with reverence and care.
10. Pho Dac Biet with Marrow at Pho Binh By Night, 12148 Bellaire, No. 101
Pho Binh By Night grew out of the original, humble Pho Binh trailer at 10928 Beamer. Indeed, the pho tai (or Vietnamese beef noodle soup) made with a slow-simmering stock of bones, beef and earthy spices like star anise is more flavorful than at many other pho places. The basil, cilantro, sprouts and lime wedges that come alongside are always bright, crispy and fresh, too.
Pho Binh By Night is like the younger, more hip cousin of the trailer and offers something the original does not. Here, a bowl of bone marrow in broth can be ordered on the side. The meatiest of the pho options is the pho dac biet, which means “special pho,” and it includes thin slices of steak, fatty flank and meatballs. Adding the soft, rich marrow transforms it into the ultimate pho experience. It’s as decadent and luxurious of an experience as adding caviar to eggs (and a lot less expensive).
Dining on pho is even more fun with family and friends, and it’s such an economical dinner, there’s no reason not to. Pho Binh By Night opens at 4 p.m. On weekdays, it doesn’t close until midnight, and on Fridays and Saturdays, it’s open until 3 a.m. Truly, the pho dac biet with bone marrow is one of the best late-night noshes in Houston and a good cure-all for the hungry and worn.
9. Korean Goat Dumplings at Underbelly, 1100 Westheimer
When chef Chris Shepherd and his business partners opened Underbelly, he was determined to tell “the story of Houston food.” Shepherd, who was born in Nebraska and raised in Tulsa, finds perpetual inspiration in Houston’s melting pot of cuisines. Since the time it opened, Underbelly has offered a free guide for diners on where to find some of the best food, including local Vietnamese, Thai and Korean restaurants. Underbelly incorporates ingredients from those cultures into its own dishes, and it’s a gentle introduction to flavors that diners may not have experienced before. The best possible outcome is that their curiosity is piqued and they go forth to have full-fledged experiences on their own with these cuisines.
The Korean goat dumplings are one of the few items that have been on Underbelly’s menu since the beginning and an apt expression of “the story of Houston food” that Shepherd wants to tell. The dumplings are white, cylindrical and pillowy and enrobed in a sauce of spicy-sweet gochujang. The heft of the dish comes from tender goat sourced from local ranch Black Hill Meats. Shepherd cares a great deal about where food comes from, and his meat and produce are sourced as much as possible from within a 150-mile radius. He does that not just to financially support local ranchers and farmers, although it does. Meat from animals that are well-treated and properly nourished and that doesn’t have to be shipped cross-country (or even from overseas) simply tastes better.
Shepherd has done such a good job telling the story of Houston food with dishes like the Korean goat dumplings that he was given the Best Chef Southwest James Beard award in 2014. He’s the first Houston chef to have earned that honor since Robert del Grande won in 1992.
8. Lengua Tacos at Tacos Tierra Caliente, 1919 West Alabama
“Lengua” means “tongue” in Spanish. These days, some diners get squeamish about organ meats, but until the 1950s, dishes like cold boiled tongue were considered quite a delicacy. Take, for example, this quote from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, originally published in 1868:
“We must have cold tongue and chicken, French chocolate and ice cream, besides. The girls are used to such things and I want my lunch to be proper and elegant, though I do work for my living.”
Back then, tongue was considered as much of a delicacy as French chocolates. These days, because it’s undervalued as a meat, Houstonians can enjoy a lengua taco at humble trailer Tacos Tierra Caliente for a mere two dollars. Here, the tongue is sliced, braised and seared for maximum flavor. A smattering of fresh chopped onion and cilantro leaves adds a ton of great texture and flavor to the warm, dense meat. Really, these tacos don’t even need sauce, but a judicious application of the red picante or the creamy (and very hot) green variety adds a bit of moisture and brings all the ingredients together beautifully. It’s not unusual at all to see folks roll up to the trailer in the morning and pick up a dozen to take to the office.
Diners who aren’t in a hurry can get a plate full of tacos, walk them across the street to West Alabama Ice House and enjoy a cold beer alongside. When the weather is nice and the crowd is sedate, it’s a therapeutic experience that will only cost around ten or 12 dollars, depending on the beer.
7. Spaghetti Carbonara at Coppa Osteria, 5210 Morningside
Chef Brandi Key’s take on spaghetti carbonara at Coppa Osteria is apt to cause love at first sight. Even the colors are red, gold and white, as on a gilded Valentine’s card. A small hill of spaghetti fills a wide bowl and is covered in white flecks of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Next come flakes of finely shaved, deep red salami and freshly cracked black pepper. Carefully poised at the center is a perfect, unbroken, golden egg yolk.
This is a fun, interactive dish, too. Served alongside is a small white pitcher of decadent Parmesan cream. Diners can add as much or as little as they want. Italian purists will carp that Coppa’s carbonara isn’t “authentic” because in traditional carbonara, the only ingredients are pasta, egg, grated Parmesan, black pepper, salt and guanciale (cured pork jowl). While they’re busying worrying about authenticity, the rest of us will be giggling as we douse everything in Parmesan cream, break the yolk carefully balanced on top, and mix it with the pasta into a dreamy, wonderful mess.
6. Brisket at Pax Americana, 4319 Montrose
Pax Americana has made some serious waves since it opened in the fall of 2013. Chef Adam Dorris’s ambitious, eclectic food quickly drove it to the top tier of Houston restaurants. The menu changes with the seasons, but there are a few enduring, signature dishes that stay around. The greatest of these is the Nine Spice brisket. It’s not a Texas-style brisket. It’s an international-style brisket and just as compelling.
Like chef Chris Shepherd at Underbelly, Dorris and restaurateur Shepard Ross source conscientiously, locally raised products as often as possible. The Nine Spice brisket uses meat from 44 Farms and tops it with a mix of herbs from Sugar Land-based Fresh Herbs of Houston. The mix is apt to change, but might include baby mustard, basil, mint, sorrel, cilantro and rau ram. The brisket is laid over a black garlic vinaigrette and on top are smoked potatoes dressed in sour cream. The crisp, slightly bitter herbs make a bracing backdrop for the slightly smoky, succulent brisket. They help cut the fattiness as well and add a freshness lacking in most other meat dishes.
The spice rub Dorris uses is inspired by traditional Chinese five-spice seasoning, but he amps it up with four more, thus making it a nine-spice rub. The spices include ground pink peppercorns, fennel, star anise and coriander. As if all that complexity weren’t intriguing enough, the dish is also quite the looker. The dark brown roasted meat, golden, crispy potatoes and bright green herbs make the dish as vibrant on the plate as it is in the mouth.
5. Foie Gras Nigiri at Uchi, 904 Westheimer
Hot, seared foie gras, with its taut, firm exterior that gives way to a soft, luscious, creamy, incredibly rich interior after a single bite, is like the bonbon of the meat world. It is the ultimate statement of decadence. There’s a bit of a technical issue, though. Served on a plate, it loses a lot of the flavorful fat when it’s cut into. So it’s best when paired with something capable of absorbing the excess, such as polenta, grits, mashed potatoes — or a bed of gently compacted, tender sushi rice.
At Uchi, the fatty duck liver is cut to be perfectly sized to a block of nigiri. When bit into, it practically explodes with flavor and the bed of nigiri rice absorbs the rich fat. The rice bed also makes the foie easy to pick up and eat — an added bonus. Uchi’s seared foie gras nigiri is possibly the best two-bite dish in Houston. (Try to stretch it to three bites, just to make the experience last.)
4. Bucatini Amatriciana at Paulie’s, 1834 Westheimer
When Paulie’s acquired its own pasta-making machine a few years ago, owner Paul Petronella created a few new dishes to highlight the fresh results. One of those dishes was the bucatini amatriciana (more formally called bucatini all’amatriciana). Along the lines of Italian classics like fra diavolo (brother devil) and arrabbiata (angry) sauce, this is a spicy concoction with a hearty dose of red pepper flakes. It’s named for the town of Amatrice in central Italy. Burst cherry tomatoes form the base of the sauce, and Petronella uses bacon for a touch of smokiness. There’s a sturdy amount of garlic, and wispy shreds of Pecorino cheese cover it all.
This dish has become something of a cult favorite among Houston’s restaurant and bar industry folk who want something punchy, memorable, comforting and reasonably priced before heading to their night jobs. The lure of Paulie’s in the afternoon is bolstered by a happy hour featuring half-priced wine from noon until 4 p.m., espresso drinks made from Greenway Coffee beans by trained baristas, and free wifi. A “small” bucatini amatriciana is $10 and shrimp is a highly recommended add-on for an extra $4.
3. Chicken Cannelloni at Tony’s, 3755 Richmond
Tony’s, a benchmark for fine dining, has drawn upper-society types through its doors for 50 years. Fortunately, that’s not a requirement to come in and enjoy some of the finest fresh pasta dishes in Houston. During a recent interview with owner Tony Vallone about his time in the restaurant business, he emphasized, “We’re not really all that expensive compared to other places, especially considering the quality.”
“The quality” is something Vallone is extremely proud of. He’s very particular about the ingredients of the house-made pasta, especially since when Tony’s first opened, few imported ingredients were available in Houston. To create the most authentic Italian pasta possible, Tony’s uses flour from Naples, Sicilian sea salt, Italian bottled water and San Marzano tomatoes. Vallone also imports his own brand of rich, unfiltered olive oil from his mother’s hometown of Corleone, Sicily.
For only $12, diners can taste history. The chicken-stuffed cannelloni was offered at Tony’s when it first opened 50 years ago. Referred to affectionately as “Cannelloni ’65,” it’s a delicate tube of pasta filled with ground chicken and spinach, simply seasoned with salt and pepper. The cannelloni rests in a shallow pool of warm, velvety béchamel. (Vallone is an adept saucier — a skill he has taught his cooks over the years.) The top of the cannelloni is encrusted with Pecorino Romano and baked until the cheese is golden-brown. The final touch that gives the dish the same color palette as the Italian flag is a thin strip of marinara run artfully across the top, and adorned with a single basil leaf. Ultimately, it is one of the most ethereal, satisfying, well-made bites in the city, pasta or otherwise.
2. Steak at Killen’s Steakhouse, 6425 West Broadway
No matter how cosmopolitan Houston becomes, we still love our steaks. Our cowtown days have long faded (when was the last time you saw a ranch inside city limits?), and yet that heritage is always within reach. Drive just a bit past city limits in any given direction and there are the herds of cattle grazing next to barbed wire fences. The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, the best excuse for breaking out the cowboy boots and hats, sold more than a million paid admissions in 2015.
Some of us kick, whine and dig our heels in on steakhouses, complaining that enough Houstonians aren’t supporting or don’t understand more adventurous restaurants. For a certain demographic, that is probably true. As for the rest of us, though, we can — and will — eat anything we want. No steakhouse is threatening Houston’s status as a culinary melting pot and one of the greatest food cities in the United States. It’s fine that we still have a twinkle in our eyes when an out-of-towner asks, “Hey, do you know where I can get a good steak around here?” Of course we do. We’re Texans.
It is in one of the outlying areas where cattle still roam that some of the best steaks can be found — Killen’s Steakhouse in Pearland. Some restaurants source one kind of meat and stick to it. Killen’s brings in five different kinds and is able to cater to any meat-lover’s whim. There’s Wagyu from Strube Ranch in Texas, corn-fed Nebraska beef (both wet-aged and dry), true Wagyu from Japan, Certified Piedmontese from Nebraska, and Angus from Harris Ranch in California. It’s a menu of steaks, as opposed to just steaks on a menu.
Chef Ronnie Killen’s recommendation for a good steak value is the filet mignon from 50-year-old supplier Harris Ranch, which tests both feed and meat to ensure there are no residual traces of antibiotics. It’s wet-aged and tender, but still has enough density for good chew and texture. A hefty ten-ounce steak is $46. (For most people, that’s enough beef for two meals.) It’s juicy, seasoned liberally with salt, and fresh-cracked pepper and seared to a beautiful brown.
1. Sashimi for Two at Kata Robata, 3600 Kirby
Everyone has his or her own favorite dish, but we’re all looking for the same things: wonderful flavor, beauty and quality with a highly skilled chef behind it all. We’re looking for more than nourishment. We’re looking for an experience — food that allows us to travel, even if only in our own minds.
Those elements combine fiercely in chef Manabu Horiuchi’s sashimi for two at Kata Robata. There are only a handful of high-quality Japanese restaurants in Houston. This is one of them. In the hands of a trained sushi chef like Horiuchi, sashimi becomes so much more than just slices of raw fish. Here, it is art. It is not easy. It is not simple. Not just anyone can do it. The quality depends as much on the wielding of the knife as on the type and freshness of the fish.
At Kata Robata, the sashimi appears as if presented on an ice-covered mountain. The neutral, crystalline bed of crushed ice is dotted with bursts of green, like trees on a snow-covered landscape. There are artfully planted spiky-edged shiso leaves and frilly sprigs of okahijiki, a “land seaweed” that grows in the salty marshes of Japan. There are other colors, too, like the violet burst of a single orchid and a sunny yellow nasturtium.
The star, of course, is the seafood, and the sashimi for two sports several different kinds. The species are apt to change depending on what’s available, but a representative platter might include live scallops from the East Coast, bluefin tuna, fresh salmon, hamachi, sweet shrimp (also known as “ebi”), chutoro, a moderately fatty cut of tuna, and madai, or Japanese snapper. Here is the wealth of the ocean presented at its edible best — a prism of tastes, textures and colors from stark white to deep red.
The Quest Is Never Over
For food writers tasked with creating any list, there is always a single, infuriating question: “What did I miss?” Yet, in a diverse culinary epicenter like Houston, the question isn’t just a frustrating soul-search. It is tantalizing. In a landscape of thousands of restaurants, the seeker’s quest is never ending. The road goes ever on and on, with many a delicious adventure along the way.
Updated 12/29/2015, 11:04 a.m.: Corrected name of Dish #30, The Breakfast Klub's Wings & Waffle, below.
The rest of this year’s list:
11. Cacio e Pepe at Coltivare
12. Blue Crab Soup at Caracol
13. Machi Cure at Uchi
14. Sous Vide Rabbit Loin at BCN Taste & Tradition
15. Smoked Fried Chicken at Prohibition
16. Bone-In Pork Belly at Killen’s Barbecue
17. Hangover Burger at Hubcap Grill
18. Kanpaccio at KUU
19. Pastrami Beef at Himalaya
20. Brisket at Corkscrew Barbecue
21. Chicken-Fried Steak at Frank’s Americana Revival
22. Chicken Chicharrón at Piqueo
23. Mole Verde at Cuchara
24. Butcher’s Cut at Underbelly
25. Morning Thali at Pondicheri
26. Pho Ga Dac Biet at Pho Ga Dakao
27. Veruca Salt Cake at Fluff Bake Bar
28. Seafood Demi-Tower at Julep
29. Shrimp and Pork Dumplings at Fung’s Kitchen
31. Risotto With Veal and Parmesean at Mascalzone
32. Burnt Ends at Southern Goods
33. Tom Kha Gai at Kanomwan
34. Jumbo Lump Crab Cake at Vic & Anthony’s
35. Pozole at El Big Bad
36. Bacon Mochi at Izakaya
37. Nasi Lemak at Banana Leaf
38. Make-Your-Own-Gyro at Helen Greek Food & Wine
39. Spicy Blue Cheese Burger at Alamo Drafthouse
40. Pizza at Dolce Vita
41. Grilled Shrimp at La Grange
42. Duck With Two Moles at Arnaldo Richards’ Picos
43. Stuffed Pepperoncini at Anvil Bar & Refuge
44. LH Gumbo at Holley’s Seafood Kitchen & Oyster Bar
45. KG’s Double-Brined Cast Iron Chicken at Harold’s
46. Ceviche Mixto at Andes Café
47. Sunday Gravy at Liberty Kitchen & BRC
48. Tonkotsu Ramen at Tiger Den
49. Charcuterie at Kris Bistro
50. Cauliflower Steak at Backstreet Cafe
51. Telur Balado at Rice Bowl II
52. Green Curry at Asia Market Restaurant
53. Foie Gras Breakfast at Triniti
54. Korean Fried Chicken at ToreOre at Super H Mart
55. Bulgogi Bibimbap at BiBiJo Express at Super H Mart
56. Vegetable Plate at Hugo’s
57. The Cured Plate at Revival Market
58. Simply Grilled Fish at Ibiza
59. Tonkotsu Black Ramen at JINYA Houston
60. The Rancor Burger at The Petrol Station
61. Heritage Sampler Platter at Rudi Lechner’s
62. Oxtails at Le’ Pam’s House Of Creole
63. The 420 Slice at Pi Pizza Truck
64. Frenchy’s Fried Chicken on Scott Street
65. 3 Pig Mac & Cheese at Urban Eats
66. Pucchia Pugliese Foggia at Sud Italia
67. Triple-Smoked Pastrami on Rye at Kenny & Ziggy’s
68. Fume Pizza at Pizaro’s Pizza Napoletana
69. Banh Mi Thap Cam at Café TH
70. Caramelized Onion Soup at Mockingbird Bistro
71. Milk Chocolate Stout Malt at Fat Cat Creamery
72. Pork Ribs at Roegels Barbecue Co.
73. Carrot Pizza at Weights + Measures
74. Jalisco Wings at El Big Bad
75. Mussels at Cafe Brussels
76. Cresta di Gallo at The Pass & Provisions
77. Beef Fajitas at El Real Tex-Mex
78. Chicken Tikka Masala from the Tandoori Nite truck
79. Chocolates at Cacao & Cardamom
80. Hummus Supreme at Al’s Quick Stop
81. Red Oil Dumplings at Mala Sichuan
82. Tex-Cajun Fries at BB’s Café
83. Mac & Cheese at The Oceanaire ?Seafood Room
84. The Principal Burger at Bernie’s Burger Bus
85. Hunter’s Honey-Roasted Duck at Brennan’s Of Houston
86. Fish and Chips at Good Dog Houston
87. Sausage, Egg and Cheese Biscuit at Blacksmith
88. “Saucy Balls” at Brooklyn Meatball Company
89. Pork Chop at Perry’s Steakhouse/Pork Chop at Perry & Sons
90. General Tso’s Chicken from The Rice Box
91. Eggs, Refried Beans, Hash Browns and Hugo’s Sauce at 59 Diner
92. Plain Glazed at Shipley Do-Nuts
93. Housemade Bologney at Public Services Wine & Whisky
94. Bo Luc Lac at Cheno’s (formerly Chino’s) Fast Food
95. Combo #5 at Soto’s Cantina
96. Carnitas Salad at Chipotle
97. Pickled Shrimp at Punk’s Simple Southern Food
98. Lobster Roll at Maine-Ly Sandwiches
99. Chili-Cheese Coneys at JCI Grill
100. Corned Beef Hash and Eggs at House of Pies