Proud Houstonians love bragging about this multicultural city, and that aspect is just as evident in the grocery stores as it is in the restaurants. Look hard enough and just about any ingredient can be found here. This list of the best grocery stores includes not only the mainstream ones, but Mediterranean, Mexican, Indian, Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese markets, too. The challenge isn’t finding products. It’s not blowing the grocery budget in a city full of culinary temptations.
Honorable Mention: Trader Joe’s, 2922 South Shepherd. It’s fair to say that Trader Joe’s is the best grocery store for people who don’t like spending long, involved hours in the kitchen. The big draws are not basic ingredients (and certainly not the pricey little produce department) but quality prepared, packaged and frozen foods. It’s easy to grab salads, sandwiches, sustainable frozen fish, cookies, crackers and candies and take them on the run. Of course, Trader Joe’s is famous for its self-branded products, including wine and beer at bargain prices. It’s helpful to know grape varietals, origins and beer brands to decide whether the purchase constitutes a great deal or if it’s just cheap. This isn’t a place to find international ingredients, but the selection of well-priced organic, free-range and grassfed meat is better than average. There are two other Trader Joe's locations, at 1440 South Voss and 10868 Kuykendahl.
Honorable Mention: Fiesta, various locations: Fiesta markets are still terrific and it would be hard to come up with another grocery chain that has the same extensive inventory of products that are important for Mexican cuisine, like dried peppers, spices, extracts and special cuts of meat, such as tripe and lengua, or beef tongue. That said, Fiesta has been fairly stagnant (in light of some recent store closings, maybe even contracting) over the past few years and seems content to keep doing what it's doing without breaking any new ground. Even so, it's an essential chain for Houston.
10. Seiwa, 1801 South Dairy Ashford. There’s no doubt about it: Houston’s newest Japanese grocery store is very shiny and appealing. (In fact, it’s so new that during our visit, signs were posted that read, “Soft Opening. Cash Only. Sorry!”) In addition to a wealth of sushi rice, rice crackers and nori (sheets of dried, roasted seaweed), there’s a fresh sushi and sashimi counter. The fish is impeccable. The salmon sashimi, for example, was the melt-in-your-mouth kind with thick, even stripes of fat. There’s an entire endcap of Pocky, those crunchy, sweet biscuit sticks with the ends dipped in a variety of sweet frostings, like strawberry and chocolate. We even found bags of the Japanese “adult sweetness” chocolate KitKat bars that we mentioned not too long ago. It is well worth recognizing, though, that Seiwa is expanding services for a clientele that humble Nippan Daido, 11146 Westheimer, has been serving for decades. This is indeed a case of “the more the merrier.”
9. La Michoacana Meat Market, various locations. We couldn’t decide on just one location, but this may be the most underrated grocery chain in Houston. There are more than 50 locations in the area and the stores tend to be small but incredibly useful. Shoppers love La Michoacana for its wide variety of meat, the in-store taquerias and specialty Mexican products, such as several kinds of mole. (Look especially for the fresh poblano mole, made in-house). Meats include pre-sliced and marinated fajita, pastor (seasoned pork) and short rib. This is a good place to find steak on sale, too. We spied bone-in rib eye for $3.99 per pound. Don’t forget to get a bag of chicharrón (fried pork skin) from the butcher counter to snack on while unloading the groceries at home.
8. Rani's World Foods, 12821 Duncan. This Indian market (which also has a selection of Australian and British goods) may be Houston’s best-kept secret in grocery stores. It’s located on a side street in the northwest part of Houston just off 1960 and Hollister. The back room is filled with hundreds of huge bags of jasmine and basmati rice. There’s a wide variety of jarred Indian-style pickles, including lime and mango, bags of ready-to-use puri (bite-size, crispy puffs of fried bread for making traditional Indian snacks) and so much more. Best of all, though, might be the no-frills prepared foods counter. All the dishes are vegetarian, and the fragrant potato- and pea-filled samosa, warm sambar (lentil and vegetable soup) and kadai paneer (mild fresh cheese cooked with red bell peppers and tomato gravy) left nothing to complain about.
7. Viet Hoa International Foods, 8300 West Sam Houston. Houston has some good choices when it comes to Asian grocery stores. What sets Viet Hoa above others is its vast, varied and high-quality produce department. It’s a vivid, colorful scene of melons, herbs, citrus, peppers, cabbages, lettuces and more. During our visit, there were boxes of breathtakingly ripe mangos, the skins well on their way to changing from green to orange. In addition, the sizable store has a vast array of fresh and dried noodles, a big meat and seafood department and more. Before going, check out this list of our favorite prepared foods and barbecued meats at Viet Hoa.
6. Kroger, 1035 North Shepherd. Heights residents resolutely call this the “11th Street Kroger” regardless of the actual address. The store recently underwent an extensive remodeling and among the improvements is an in-store bar called Cork & Tap with 12 beer taps and 16 wine selections. (Only two other Kroger stores have a Cork & Tap: 20355 Cypresswood and 1712 Spring Green in Katy.) Sommelier Jamie De Leon (whom we recently profiled) oversees the beer and wine department, so of course the selection both at the bar and on the shelves is top-notch. There's also a rather full-fledged Starbucks, a big sushi counter (with ladies who apparently don't want people taking pictures of their sushi because "someone might steal their recipes") and big wedges of Italian cheese that would be ideal to go with all that great wine.
5. H-E-B, 5895 San Felipe. The home to Table 57, the only full-fledged restaurant in an H-E-B in Houston, is a enormous store. That means there’s room for everything, from basic groceries to the more fiddly gourmet stuff, like specialty salt and cooking gear. Having an in-store restaurant means that busy parents can have a meal with a glass of beer or wine, watch the kids frolic in the play area, then grab a cart and load up on groceries. There’s a temperature-controlled wine cellar in the back as well as a wine bar (which sadly wasn’t open when we visited). The selection of organic produce is larger than average and the prepared seafood items to go, like lobsters steamed upon request and pre-made crab cakes, make it easier to get dinner on the table.
4. H-mart, 1302 Blalock. Houston’s premier Korean market is home to one of the best food courts around. Korean-style fried chicken, bibimbap, jjigae and other classic dishes are readily available from one of several stands. The actual groceries to be had are just as impressive. There’s a huge variety of store-made banchan, including cabbage kimchi, marinated daikon, sesame oil-dressed bean sprouts and dried anchovy fried in hot pepper. The huge seafood market is one of the best departments in the store and includes tanks of live fish and lobsters. One entire side of an aisle is dedicated to gochujang (spicy pepper paste) and fermented soybean paste. This is also an excellent spot to buy soup bones and stew meat. A second location recently opened at 9896 Bellaire.
3. Whole Foods, 1700 Post Oak, #100. If the Jetsons were real, they’d shop at Whole Foods in the Galleria. The technology employed to get shoppers in and out in the most efficient and convenient way possible is outstanding. Parking is in an underground garage, so inclement weather isn’t an issue. There’s both an escalator and an elevator to get into the store and a conveyor ramp to get shoppers and carts back down to their cars. This location is the only one in Houston to have its own brewery, an asset to the beer bar next door. There’s also an attractive bakery with a fetching selection of in-house baked loaves of bread. The seafood counter is well-stocked, and the open, upstairs dining area means customers can eat prepared foods in comfort before heading back to their lives.
2. Phoenicia Specialty Foods, 12141 Westheimer. This is the original Mediterranean market in west Houston, the one that predates the sleeker second location at 1001 Austin downtown. The original has lost none of is charm, though. Kids and adults alike love gazing at the conveyor belt that carries puffy, just-baked pita breads down from the second-floor oven to the main shopping area. There, they are deflated, packed into bags and immediately put out for sale. (Linger long enough and someone might hand you a warm pita to try.) This is a great place to buy halal lamb and goat at good prices, and there’s a selection of housemade ricotta and yogurt as well. The baked goods counter tempts with fine desserts, little savory feta pies and a wealth of honey-soaked treats that prove there’s a world beyond baklava. Phoenicia is also an outstanding place to buy olive oils, spices, tea and European chocolates.
1. Central Market, 3815 Westheimer. When it comes to setting standards for grocery shopping in Houston, Central Market has long been ahead of the pack. There are dozens of checkout lanes and about a third of those are dedicated to express checkout. Both the butcher and the seafood counters have some of the best selections of quality meat in Houston. The prepared foods counters include cold deli items, soups, salads, sushi and sandwiches. A dining area is outfitted with a few microwaves for those who want to dine in. Central Market also has the largest cheese selection in Houston and showcases more than 700 varieties. The winding front aisles of produce always showcase several examples of what is in season, whether it’s citrus in December or stone fruit in July. As far as bulk dry ingredients and snacks go, including dried fruit, flour, sugar, spices, nuts, gourmet coffee beans and candy, the selection is unmatched. The store is starting to show its age, so a remodel is in progress, but the inventory still reflects Central Market's high standards. People who want to improve their cooking skills and knowledge really should check out the classes that are held upstairs, which can be registered for online.